Snowplow dilemma - outside atheist group nixes mayor's 'reasonable' solution to students' religious artwork

by Vanessa Garcia Rodriguez, |
Facebook/Lutheran High School of Sioux Falls

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Christian Examiner) -- Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether says he is working hard to "find reasonable solutions to resolve complex issues" in his town: how to honor student artwork on city snowplows, which include two with Christian themes, while also respecting those who disagree with the religious messages.

In a press release dated Oct. 30 he announced all 27 decorated snowplows, out of 45 owned by the city, would include a disclaimer reading:

-- The City of Sioux Falls encourages creativity.
-- This "Paint the Plows" work is created by students.
-- Any message or views expressed are not those of the City or endorsed by the City.

But the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported earlier this week that the "reasonable" solution might not resolve anything.

On Nov. 1, the publication reported that Patrick Elliott with the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation sent Sioux Falls City Attorney David Pfeifle a letter Oct. 30 stating that the Freethinkers want the religious artwork removed.

In early October, the city's fifth annual Paint the Plow event drew complaints from a local chapter called the Siouxland Freethinkers about the two plows, one painted by elementary and middle school students from Sioux Falls Lutheran Schools – which read "Happy Birthday Jesus" – and the other painted by students from Lutheran High School which was decorated with "Jesus Christ."

The informal complaint said the artwork violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

"These displays send the exclusionary message to nonbelievers and non-Christians that they are outsiders in their community, and a corollary message to Christians that they are insiders and favored citizens" Siouxland Freethinkers board member Eric Novotny told USA Today.

When the decision was made to maintain the artwork and simply add a disclaimer, Pfeifle said "both sides of the issue have legitimate concerns. Our wish is to maintain the artwork while also respecting the rights of those who brought the complaint."

Prior to the city's statement regarding the disclaimer, an article in the Argus Leader initially stated the plows would have to be repainted and that although religious themes were used in the past, this is the first time a complaint had been made.

The annual Paint the Plows event makes the snowplows available to local students at the end of August. The students decide the content of their artwork, and the schools and organizations supply the paint. The artwork is completed the first week in October and plows are then exhibited and voted on by the city's residents during a weekend event.

The top three favorites and a plow painted by the street division will be featured in the parade of lights through downtown Sioux Falls, Nov. 28.