After Seeing Painting of Hindu Deity, Virginia County Officials Decide to Hang Ten Commandments in Government Building

Back in February, Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia celebrated the opening of its 80th season with the unveiling of a mural painted by artist D.R. Mullins. The mural “was designed to reflect the theater’s global reach and its past” and included an image of the Hindu god Shiva:

(David Crigger – Bristol Herald Courier)

“The Eastern influence, I wanted to show everybody who comes to Barter we’re not necessarily a regional theater, we’re world famous,” [Mullins] said. “I think it speaks of Barter’s continuing trend to go multicultural.”

Well, that’s one way to do it. In any case, no one in their right mind would see this as some endorsement of Hinduism. The artist didn’t say that and no one would take him seriously even if he did.

But community members aren’t happy about it. They took their complaint to the Washington County Board of Supervisors and the city officials decided to take action by… unanimously voting to put up the Ten Commandments on government property:

The supervisors voted unanimously after a lengthy discussion on the topic. They also voted to form a committee — likely to consist of [local Reverend Jerry] Eggars, supervisors Wayne Stevens and Bill Gibson, and a handful of citizens — to look into the legal implications of such a move.

“I support the idea of what you want to do to but I want this done … right,” Stevens said. “When I hang that up there with you, I don’t want it to come down.”

“Christianity is our heritage. I think the least we can do is stand for it and I plan to,” Eggers said.

The committee consists of people who appear to already be predisposed to hanging up the Commandments… but it’s going to backfire after they’re sued.

The sole purpose of hanging the Commandments is to reflect the county’s Christianity, as stated by the supervisors. They’re not even trying to pretend it’s part of some broader picture of our country’s “heritage” or anything like that.

So let’s see if the committee realizes it’s smarter to just hang the Ten Commandments on private property — their homes, their churches, etc. — and a completely boneheaded move to hang it on government property.

How’s that for an overreaction…?

(Thanks to Brian for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Cindy

    Is the theatre government-owned? If so, I would not be happy with the painting of Shiva there. If it’s privately owned, how do the county supervisors think it’s in any way comparable to posting the ten commandments on government property?

    • C Peterson

      I don’t think it matters who owns the theater. The use of a religious figure doesn’t automatically make the message religious, or some sort of support of religion. Government owned museums feature all sorts of religious art, and it isn’t seen as a conflict.

      What matters is intent, and there’s clearly no intent in this case to advocate any sort of religion. Even if the building were owned by the government, I’d see the piece as acceptable. It would be no different than having Jesus or Mary, lit in neon and acting out some theatrical role. Not a religious message, not a problem.

      On the other hand, the response to post the Ten Commandments in a government space is hard to interpret as anything other than a religious endorsement.

    • Tom

      I’m not so sure I’d have a problem with such imagery even if the place was government owned, in this particular case – someone just needs to slowly explain to these people that the point of a theatre is to show you things that aren’t actually real.

    • Pseudonym

      Maybe we’re thinking about this the wrong way.

      Think of the the “let reason prevail” banners which are deliberately designed to be over-the-top, obnoxious, and stupid. The whole point is that if you allow a nativity scene on public land, you have to allow that too.

      Isn’t this really the same thing? Isn’t the point that if you allow Shiva. you have to allow this?

      • C Peterson

        This Shiva is being presented as a fictional character. A theatrical expression. Art. There is no more religious endorsement here than there is from an award where Atlas is supporting a globe. Simply using religious characters doesn’t automatically make something into religious expression.

  • Gus Snarp

    Just so we’re clear here, since it isn’t mentioned anywhere that I could find, is Barter Theatre housed in a public building, or do they own their own building? It seems like the latter is most likely. So the answer to a private business expressing itself with art on its walls is for the government to put up Bible verses? How are these people so clueless? Why are they so afraid? Do they actually think God is going to smite the whole town because the theater put up a picture of Shiva? Or maybe that Shiva is going to destroy them all?

    • KDM

      Yes, this is southwest Virginia you are talking about.

    • rhodent

      I found online (http://www.ada.gov/barter.htm) the decision for a lawsuit involving the Barter Foundation which states that “Owned by the Town of Abingdon, the building is leased to the Barter Foundation for a fee of $1 per year.”

      The decision was handed down in 2008 September, so it’s possible that the status has changed since then, but barring definitive evidence that the Barter Foundation has bought the building outright I would consider it reasonable to assume it is still town-owned.

    • Michelle B.

      I actually live here. Its a historical theater (boasting starting careers of quite a few famous actors/actresses). It receives town funding. I was actually getting ready to email him this very article until I saw it here. I have been following this closely, and from what I could find here, its not privately owned. BUT I fail to see why this is a big deal. I offered to paint Jesus and God as Romeo & Juliet to balance it out a bit.

  • DougI

    I wonder if they were upset when the watched Avengers and there was the Norse gods Loki and Thor and thought it was an endorsement for Nordic religion.

    • Helanna

      Obviously, the only rational response now is to have the government pay for a superhero movie starring Jesus. The amazing Jesus Christ, everyone! He heals the sick and feeds the hungry, but he’ll also liven up any party with some water-turned-wine! But his arch-nemesis, Satan, isn’t so happy with his growing popularity. In true supervillain fashion, Satan decides the only way to take down Jesus is to destroy the Earth in a bizarrely over-complicated manner. Will Jesus have to make the ultimate sacrifice to stop Satan’s evil plan?!

      . . . Actually, I’ll be right back, I have a proposal to write up.

      • http://twitter.com/TheTrueScotsman Sean Slater

        It would be far better with Satan in the hero role.

        Stan A. Lucifer is a mild-mannered idiot at Dullsville College
        when he’s bitten by a radioactive Bonobo. He suddenly becomes Satan; the sexy, intelligent, rational,life and soul of any party with fabulous style – a cross between Whoopi Goldberg, Frank-‘n-Furter and Tim Minchin. He faces his arch nemesis, Jesus H. Christ; a super-villain who cannot die and can break up any party with his “sin-ray”; a diabolical machine that creates an army by forcing people to think that any enjoyment is bad so other people’s happiness must also be bad and therefore stopped.

        Can Satan prevent Christ’s sin ray from infecting the world? Or will Christ resurrect himself too many times for Satan to cope? Tune in
        next week…

        • Sue Blue

          Jesus should be portrayed as an evil zombie out for all the brains in the world.

          • Gus Snarp

            I thought the most accurate interpretation was that he’s a lich, although I’ve always gone with vampire, due to the blood drinking. That way the twelve disciples who actually drank his blood are also vampires, but everyone else is stuck with zombification.

      • nkrishna

        Jesus is really one of the lamer superheroes. He’s a decent carpenter and will serve as a doctor and a caterer if you’re in a pinch, but doesn’t have much else going for him otherwise. Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, who danced a snake to death, is more my style. Or Krishna, who lifted mountains, brained old men with chariot wheels, and once cloned himself so he could bone 100 girls at the same time.

        • Sinfanti

          He might also be good for maritime rescues with the whole walking on water thing.

        • Sinfanti

          He might also be good for maritime rescues with the whole walking on water thing.

      • eric

        I think the idea’s already been satirized – Djesus Unchained
        On a more relevant note, it does seem these people really have no clue. They set up a committee to determine how to do something legally, and they appoint to it a…priest. Not lawyer, but priest. Aside from the fact that their goal is nasty and illegal goal, that’s not even good tactics for trying to accomplish it.

    • Mark W.

      As a Thor-astrian I would just like to say that any of those Lokian’s are heretics and will surely feel the mighty backhand of Mjolnir when our lord comes back to earth. May they all be electricuted by the Thunderer’s divine lightning bolts.

  • sam

    “You have betrayed Shiva…”

  • Gus Snarp

    So Feminerd nailed it in the comments over here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/05/13/yes-the-virgin-mary-statue-on-public-property-is-still-a-huge-problem/

    Shiva is apparently terribly offensive. Next time they should go with a nice traditional depiction of Kali instead: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/the-goddess-kali-punishes.jpg

    • Gus Snarp

      Slightly going off topic now, but this interpretation of Kali is from the comments on the blog where I found the picture of her. If only she weren’t a goddess and therefore fictional, she sounds like the perfect symbol for atheists, skeptics, and feminists:

      The heads you see in Kali’s hand and around Her neck are the heads of demons (our own ignorance) she has slaughtered, not “people who have offended Her.” Kali’s brutality is the fierce and unrelenting clarity that cuts through our limitations and the attachments that are keeping us from waking up. She is the power of Reality that takes away whatever we do not need, like a snake shedding its old skin. I’m only beginning to get to know Her (lots of layers to slough off!).
      …..
      Her “consort” is Lord Shiva. You may not like Her feet on Him, but you can observe the look of supreme contentment on His face as She towers over Him with Her lotus feet upon His heart. This is a most precious gift to Him. This profound connection, She and He. She is His own creative power and He is Her own feeling-consciousness.

    • Philbert

      I don’t know what’s worse, how badly this freaks me out, or how little I’m bothered by the image of a man tortured, nailed to a cross and left to die slowly.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      i’m a Durga fan, myself.

      • Gus Snarp

        Hinduism is just so big. So many gods. If you’ve got to believe, it seems like a lot more fun than monotheism.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    But our entire nation was founded on Shiva-Vishnu ethics.

    • Sue Blue

      Yes, but I’m insulted that no representation of the great and good Ganesh was included. And where the hell is Parvati? Why is it always Shiva, Shiva, Shiva?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-De-Fleuriot/611844223 Mike De Fleuriot

    The only thing that saves you Americans from looking like total asses, are your Atheists/secularists. You should give thanks for them, and treasure them, otherwise the whole world would believe what they see about Americans.

  • PhysicsPhDStu

    Anyway this is as much a religious image of Shiva as is buddy Christ on a raptor .
    http://storytimeyogaforkids.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Nataraja_lineart_finished.jpg

    Shiva in Nataraja form has 4 hands and is typically holding any two of trident, fire, a damaru (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damaru) and does not have a headdress.

    I am surprised that Hindu fundamentalists are not in an uproar claiming that this is disrespectful to them :) .

    • Pepe

      Yeah, I was brought up Hindu and was wondering why shiva wasn’t looking remotely as awesome as he normally does.

    • ShoeUnited

      This is Murica, buddy. Dem Estern Religins dont count cause they dont have gawd. All I know bout shiva is dat she is a gal that has ice powers in them final fantasy vidya gaims.

      Really though, I’m sure this image is toned down for the very reason that the owners of the theater didn’t want to wake up one night with their building on fire. The religiously inclined can do some scary things when motivated.

  • Northstar

    What I want to see is Jesus depicted as doing a Vaudeville soft-shoe with top hat and cane…

    • Miss_Beara

      And watch heads explode as they yell “BLASPHEMY!!!!”

      Someone needs to do this.

    • phranckeaufile

      Well then, here you go!

  • Aspaceformyheart Awesomeblog

    I’m beginning to wonder if people who do this KNOW that they’re going to get sued and that’s a part of the reason they do it. It would certainly serve their persecution narrative well, wouldn’t it? I can imagine them getting just a little bit hard, thinking of the chance they’ll have to take a brave stance against the evil heathen secular lawmakers who cruelly tell them to take the commandments down, and how they’ll be able to commiserate with their fellow faithful when they lose.

    • Baby_Raptor

      Right? It’s not like they have to spend their own money defending it…The taxpayers get that bill.

      • Artor

        And they’ll get re-elected for bankrupting the town. It’s a lose-lose for everyone!!!

    • Stev84

      They may also be angling for a Supreme Court case that makes their behavior legal.

  • http://knottiesniche.com Angelia Phillips

    I’m betting not one of these board members can name all 10 commandments without reading them off. It’s a freaking stunt. If they truly believed in and followed them they would not need to put them on a wall.

    • Gus Snarp

      Especially since these seem to be the actual Ten Commandments, and not the ones that always get put on signs: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus%2034&version=NIV

    • rhodent

      If any of them were challenged to name the Ten Commandments and failed, I’m sure they’d simply argue that that’s why it’s so important to post them everywhere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=600713998 Steven W. Phillips

    I-N-B-R-E-E-D-E-R-S

    • Oranje

      Hey, that’s a pretty good starting set of letters for Scrabble you’ve got there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deb.fohringer Deb Fohringer

    After looking over the theatre’s website, I don’t see any indication that it is government-run. They do accept federal monies (National Endowment), but it seems the remainder of their revenue comes from ticket sales and donations. If that’s the case, the Board of Supervisors will be in a legally untenable situation if they install the Commandments on their property. For those who are interested in the Barter, they have a nice website. It was actually started during the Depression, and got its name because it literally bartered for rights to present plays and for admission.

    • rhodent

      See my response to Gus Snarp. Apparently the building is owned by the town and leased to the Barter Foundation for a nominal cost ($1/year).

      I honestly have no idea what that means as far as the legalities.

  • Greg G.

    I’ve never seen anybody with five arms before. I like her FSM hat.

  • MineApostasy

    Great. My state’s in the news again for being backwards. Ugh. Isn’t it bad enough that we have to deal with Cuccinelli?

  • b33bl3br0x

    Well, that’s one way to do it. In any case, no one in their right mind
    would see this as some endorsement of Hinduism. The artist didn’t say
    that and no one would take him seriously even if he did.

    Indeed the bigger issue at hand here is that even if it were an endorsement of Hinduism, it wouldn’t matter, the theatre is not owned by the government.

  • Space Cadet

    My initial reaction to this was positive, because they’re going to form a committee to look into the legal implications. After reading the article, though, I think the committee will likely be looking for loopholes that will allow them to put the decalogue up.
    Dammit, we were so close to a moment of rational thinking by a small, local governing body!

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    So, why do they think that a painting of a Shiva is an endorsement of Hinduism? A quick google search showed that the theater is a privately owned business in a privately owned theater. They should know the difference between a public building and a private building.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.potter.73 Matt Potter

    “How’s that for an overreaction…?” I’m not sure I’d call it an overreaction perhaps just an abnormal reaction. Who in their right mind sees a picture of a deity at a theater and thinks ‘You know what, we should hang the ten commandments in our local public buildings’.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    In any case, no one in their right mind would see this as some endorsement of Hinduism

    And so what if it was? That would be entirely noncontroversial unless the theatre property is government-owned, in which case you should mention that in your blog post.

  • Muggle in Converse

    I’m surprised they aren’t calling it persecution.

    http://muggleinconverse.wordpress.com/

  • JohnL

    You know, I was just thinking about this last night over the posting of the ten commandments in the public school the FFRF was challenging you blogged about. You know what I’d like to see? Instead of trying to remove these “monuments”, signs, etc w/ the commandments on them, sue to have Anton LeVey’s – The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth put up in the exact same format. Monument, list, plaque of whatever the ten on listed on and right beside them.

    Do not give opinions or advice unless you are asked.
    Do not tell your troubles to others unless you are sure they want to hear them.
    When in another’s home, show them respect or else do not go there.
    If a guest in your home annoys you, treat them cruelly and without mercy.
    Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal.
    Do not take that which does not belong to you, unless it is a burden to the other person and they cry out to be relieved.
    Acknowledge the power of magic if you have employed it successfully to obtain your desires. If you deny the power of magic after having called upon it with success, you will lose all you have obtained.
    Do not complain about anything to which you need not subject yourself.
    Do not harm young children.
    Do not kill non-human animals unless you are attacked or for your food.
    When walking in open territory, bother no one. If someone bothers you, ask him to stop. If he does not stop, destroy him.

    One can easily argue that these are more in keeping w/ good moral judgement than a list that’s half about who and how you worship. Try this and see how fast those commandments come down.

    • Pepe

      Man, these are SO much more better than the ten commandments

  • SeekerLancer

    Sigh.

  • Tom

    Did I really read that right? They voted to do something immediately and *then* form a committee to find out whether it’ll backfire?

  • onamission5

    A conversation I imagine went something like this:
    Person 1- “Sir, a private business owner and an artist have conspired to exercise their constitutional rights and acknowledge that other religions exist in the world besides ours! Whatever shall we do?”
    Person 2- “The horrors! I don’t know about you, but my religious beliefs are so weak and flimsy that the mere knowledge that other people don’t have the same thoughts about gods that I do shakes me to the core and leaves me quivering in a heap of imagined oppression. We must immediately let them and anyone else know that our city government despises the constitution by declaring our town a christian-beliefs-and-symbols-only zone! It is exactly what jesus would do!”

  • ShoeUnited

    And now they’re tattling on themselves.

    FTA:

    Eggers pointed to nearby Sullivan County, where the Ten Commandments are
    posted in the Blountville courthouse, along with the Bill of Rights,
    the Constitution and Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, penned by
    Thomas Jefferson.

  • Blacksheep

    “…no one in their right mind would see this as some endorsement of Hinduism…”

    That’s stretching reality a bit. If it were a painting of Christ on a stage, many folks here would see it as an endorsement of Christianity.

    • Pepe

      Actually, I think Hindus would be at least slightly offended by that painting of Shiva. He doesn’t have 5 hands. His headgear is all wrong and he’s wearing tights?!

    • Charles Honeycutt

      Context continues to matter.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stepford Stephen Frost

      Presumably a theatre is private property anyway. They can put Jesus up if they like. If it’s government building, then there shouldn’t be any religious imagery from any religion; including Vishnu, Shiva, Jesus, Thor or the Buddha. Rules need to be applied fairly.

  • Sue Blue

    For crying out loud. If they wanted to counter Hindu art with Christian art, why not just suggest hanging up a campy picture of Jesus or a copy of Michelangelo’s painting of God giving Adam the “spark” of life with his finger (can’t think of the name of that one right now)? And why do they care about art, anyway? They’re the ones who are always trying to defund NEA.

    What a bunch of idiots. You know they’re just going to defend this by saying “But…the atheists do it all the time to us! If Hindus want to display their beliefs in a public building, we get to do it too!” Never minding that a theater is a private building, this is art and not an expression or endorsement of Hindu belief, and that they (the Christians) are just making themselves look even more stupid and petty than they already are.

  • A3Kr0n

    The city officials need to be arrested for not upholding the Constitution. That would get people’s attention.

  • Mario Strada

    Is this Barter Theater subsidized by tax money in any way?
    Even if it was, the painting is hardly religious. but I was curious what’s the connection in their minds.

  • Michael Cox

    Thank you, Hemant, for bringing attention to this. I am a resident of an adjoining county but own property in Washington County and my family does most of our shopping there and pay both property and sales taxes there. As such, the recklessness of risking my tax dollars is appalling! Abingdon (the County seat of Wash. Co.) is the nucleus of the Virginia coal mining region. The area has an exorbitantly high poverty rate and the money the elected officials are knowingly risking could most definitely be put to better use in the community. I have filed a complaint with FFrF and am just trying to get the word out to garner support. Here is a link to a poll by the region’s largest news source that is asking our opinion on the issue. http://www.tricities.com/poll_62c1c1ae-bd60-11e2-b223-0019bb30f31a.html

    Again thanks for helping us!

  • Aine Hart

    In my response to a statement supporting the
    mounting of a 10 Commandments display in the Washington County,
    Virginia, Center for Government, I was assuming that people wanting the
    10 Commandments in the government building would be aware of
    the First Amendment of the Constitution’s call for separation of Church
    and State. I err, I guess. So, because we are not a theocracy, it is
    not appropriate to endorse religion in public places. Christianity is
    the majority religion in Washington County, Virginia, now, but it may
    not always be. Do we want to set that example? Those who want government
    to endorse religion do not seem to have much forethought. There needs
    to be an appropriate separation in a multicultural society.

    Tax
    dollars are provided the Barter Theatre of Virginia through the
    Virginia Commission for the Arts. The $4.1 million dollars allocated to
    the Virginia Commission for the Arts supports cultural and arts
    education that enriches not only personal lives (except for those people
    who think that the State of Virginia was begun and is maintained in a
    vacuum…I could name a person who constantly writes inarticulate op ed
    pieces in the local papers) but also attracts industries and
    technologies (that is, corporations that build the depressed
    southwestern Virginia economy) to the State of Virginia who acknowledge
    Virginia’s contribution to the fine arts and thus to society. In other
    words, educated people want to establish corporations in regions where
    education and culture are valued rather than in backwaters where
    lynchings still occur and ejookashun is still only readin, rattin, and
    rithmetick.

    There is a clear distinction between the Barter
    Theatre as a center for the arts and Washington County Government Center
    as a public institution of government that is not run according to
    religious law. The D.r. Mullins mural in the Barter Theatre is not
    government endorsing Hinduism. Publicly-funded museums have all kinds of
    religious objects in them. The fact that they exist in these venues
    does not constitute an endorsement of religion; rather they communicate
    culture and are valuable not only for their intrinsic worth but as
    artifacts for education. The minute fraction of the Virginia Commission
    for the Arts $4.1 million budget provided to Barter Theatre does not
    justify breaching bedrock constitutional principles. It is surprisingly
    to me that the people of Washington County, Virginia, cannot understand
    this distinction.

  • Kevin B. Johnston

    Love you blog. Please, please PLEASE change your logo to someting readable.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      But it’s a pretty ambigram :(