Goddesses on capitol buildings and the separation of church and state

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – On Monday, TWH reported on restoration, and scheduled re-installation of the statue of Ceres to the dome of Missouri Capitol building, and the objection of one state representative to the installation.

Missouri State Capitol building and the Fountain of the Centaurs.  [Image credit: Kbh3rd  CCA BY-4.0]

The 10-foot tall, 1,400-pound, copper statue of Ceres was originally installed on the building in October 1924. It was removed in November of 2018 and shipped to Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Chicago for renovation and preservation. In the 94 years, it had been in place on the capitol’s dome, restoration workers discovered it had sustained more than 300 lightning strikes.

State Representative, Mike Moon, (R-Ash Grove) sent a letter to Governor Mike Parson requesting the statue not be re-installed.

An excerpt from the letter:

If we chose to erect a statue of Jesus on, or in, some state property, there would likely be an outcry from those who disagree with our choice. Those who would oppose the statue of Jesus are the same who would argue in support of placing a false god on our Capitol’s dome. Should we not stand firm in our beliefs as well by refusing to honor a pagan god? … We serve a mighty God and we have need for no other god(s).

Several TWH commenters posted questions as to why Ceres was on a government building and nd why the statue’s presence did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

To answer the first question of why Ceres or any other number of other deities can be found on just about any government building that dates back to that time or before, a brief review of history is required.

Neoclassicism was expressed in architecture from the late 17th century.  The movement was especially prevalent in the United States from about 1890 until 1920. Roman and Greek statues of goddesses, like Minerva, Ceres, and Libertas, were often installed in many public buildings. They were not perceived as religious icons, but more as secular art that reflected the values of the people–wisdom, agriculture, and liberty.

In fact, it would be difficult to find many government buildings that date from that time period that do not have some representation of a Roman or Greek deities. Banks and other public buildings that centered around finance from that time period often had depictions of Mercury, since he was considered to be a god of Commerce.

Another example is the fresco, “The Apotheosis of Washington” from 1865 above the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building. George Washington is literally surrounded by Roman gods and goddesses while he awaits the process of becoming a god himself.

The Apotheosis of Washington, as seen looking up from the capitol rotunda [Art credit: Constantino Brumidi – CCA-BY 4.0]

Perhaps the best and most iconic goddess statue of all on American soil, Columbia, sits in the harbor of New York.

The question of whether or not all of these images of gods and goddesses violate the Establishment Clause and separation of church and state is more concerning.

TWH spoke with HecateDemeter, retired attorney, to gain a better understanding of how the law might apply.

According to HecateDemeter, the question can be easily answered by looking at the recent ruling of the Supreme Court in a similar case, American Legion v. American Humanist.

“First of all, it’s really not a religious issue since at the time the Ceres statue would’ve been installed it was a secular symbol of fertile crops and harvest. No one was really worshipping Ceres as a goddess. And even if they were, the recent ruling on the World War I memorial cross in Maryland is pretty clear.”

HecateDemeter went on to say that the Supreme Court ruling “basically exempted the cross memorial from the Establishment Clause by recognizing it as having historical significance.”

Missourian and author, Murv Sellars said much the same thing, “It’s artwork and it is a piece of history. Politicians in Missouri invoke God all of the time with their legislation. This feels like right-wing grandstanding to me. We see it a lot. The statue has no religious bearing where it comes to the capitol and it violates nothing.”

It might be pertinent to remember another Missourian politician who took exception to a statue. In 2002, U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft, made headlines by insisting the two statues, the Spirit of Justice, and Majesty of Justice be covered because they were partially nude. The solution ended up being a curtain that obscured the statues.

Spirit of Justice. [Image credit: C. Paul Jennewein, CCA-BY 4.0]

Sellars remembers Ashcroft’s comment and said, “Nothing surprises me when it comes to Missouri politicians. In 2002 Ashcroft went to Washington and ended up putting curtains over Lady Justice and Majesty of Justice because- gasp – an aluminum breast. We get this sort of thing out of the right-wing Christian zealot politicians here on a regular basis. It has just gotten worse under the current administration – both state and federal.”