July 17, 2002
JEFFERSON CITY – A billboard along Interstate 229 in St. Joseph depicting the Virgin Mary breastfeeding an infant, portrayed as Jesus, is blasphemous and demonstrates how desperate and devious is the behavior of the group behind the advertisement, Missouri’s top agriculture executive said recently.
In a commentary released by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, Director Lowell Mohler takes aim at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is responsible for the controversial billboard that is at the center of its Missouri anti-milk campaign.
"Just when you thought animal rights activists couldn’t stoop any lower, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has put up a billboard in St. Joseph that blasphemes the images of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus in an attempt to discourage people from drinking milk," Mohler said in the commentary that can be read on The Pathway’s Opinion page.
"It troubles me to even revisit these media messages, but I do so to show how desperate and devious this group’s behavior has become. Their antics should make sensible people shake their heads in disbelief – if not for the sensationalism, then for their baseless claims," he said.
Two PETA activists, wearing green bikinis and four inch heels, protested July 22 at the state Capitol. Dubbed, "the Lettuce Ladies," the two women served dairy-free ice cream while taking questions and posing for pictures with the news media.
At one point a group of children from a Columbia Kinder Care lined up to receive samples of soy-based ice cream and anti-dairy pamphlets, creating an ironic scene given PETA’s alleged penchant for violence.
PETA has come under greater scrutiny in recent years due to its links with domestic terrorists like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The FBI has called ELF "the largest and most active U.S.-based terrorist group," according to the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom (CFCF).
There was no violent behavior from the "Lettuce Ladies," who defended the St. Joseph billboard by claiming that cows are abused in the milking process and that mothers have been deceived when it comes to the nutritional value of cow’s milk in a child’s diet.
"Mr. Mohler has the right to make his statement, but I think he is misinformed about the health benefits of dairy," said protester Brandi Valladolid, 26, of Phoenix. "He needs to educate himself on the issues. He obviously has a financial interest in telling people that nothing is wrong. What we hope to accomplish is to let people know there are alternatives to dairy.
Mohler emphasized the economic importance of milk production to Missouri, but acknowledged PETA’s right to protest.
"I just think they (PETA) need to get their facts straight," he told the Associated Press. "I think it’s important that I stand by my original comments to clarify the fact that dairy products – by about any medical source – are part of any healthy diet."
Dairy industry leaders agree that children under 12 months of age should be breast-fed or given fortified formula, said Kathleen Cuddy, nutrition and public relations manager for the Midwest Dairy Association in Kansas City.
However, PETA’s anti-milk campaign is based more on an animal-rights agenda than nutrition, she said.
"People should follow the advice of their health professional and not listen to animal-rights groups," she added.
Missouri dairy farmers have disputed PETA’s claims about cow abuse as well.
"We do everything we can to make those animals comfortable," said Dan Hegeman, a dairy producer from Cosby. "We pamper these animals to give them as little stress as possible," he said, noting that cows were made for giving milk.
Missouri Baptist pastors have expressed dismay over the St. Joseph billboard and voiced their support for the state’s dairy farmers.
"I would expect an organization like PETA – that wants to raise animal’s to the same level as people – to do something like this," David Mason, pastor of Green Valley Baptist Church in St. Joseph, told The Pathway last month. "Everyone wants to use Jesus, but don’t necessarily want to follow Him.
"It is really unfortunate PETA would attack such a standard, backbone enterprise of American society as the dairy farmers," Mason said.
Don Coombs, pastor of McCarthy Baptist Church in St. Joseph, said Christians should not be fooled by the billboard because PETA does not hold to a Christian worldview.
"PETA’s worldview of wanting to raise the awareness of the position of animals, is in reality, seeking to lower the place of mankind to nothing more than an animal," Coombs said. "This worldview would either do away with God as Creator, Sustainer, Provider, and Savior – or seek to make gods out of creation itself."
PETA realizes that using Jesus in its ad campaign is offensive to Christians, said Bruce Friedrich, outreach director for the organization.
However, he said, "It’s more offensive that cows are being abused and mothers are misled to feed milk to their children."
PETA has been at odds with Southern Baptists for several years, protesting the Southern Baptist Convention’s meeting each year. A PETA activist – portraying Jesus – picketed outside the America’s Center during June’s SBC meeting in St. Louis. He carried a sign saying, "Save the animals, go veggie."
The activist’s costume and his accompanying sign were in reference to one of the group’s more outrageous claims: that Jesus was a vegetarian. The organization began running billboard ads claiming as much in 1999. It was immediately debunked by Bible scholars who noted that it would have been impossible for Jesus to participate in Passover celebrations without eating lamb. The also point to passages in the Gospel, like Luke 24, that strongly suggests the Messiah ate meat.
PETA protests, similar to one held at the State Capitol, are scheduled for St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield.