Three days after Easter, a faculty advisor and two students took down a portrait of Jesus that has been hanging in a southern Ohio school since 1947.
Superintendent Phil Howard said he requested the portrait’s removal in order to avoid an expensive and unaffordable lawsuit. “At the end of the day, we just couldn’t roll the dice with taxpayer money," he said.
Last January, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to Jackson City Schools complaining about the portrait. Shortly after, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sued the district on behalf of a student and two parents, calling the portrait an unconstitutional promotion of religion in a public school.
At first, the school refused to remove the portrait, pledging to protect students’ right to free speech. Administrators said the portrait technically belonged to the Hi-Y Christian student club and that it was part of a public forum for student organizations.
But their resolve crumbled when the district’s insurance company declined to cover litigation expenses. “When you get into these kinds of legal battles, you're not talking about money you can raise with bake sales and car washes,” Howard said. “It's not fair to take those resources from our kids' education."
Nick Worner, an ACLU spokesperson, said they’ll wait to see if the portrait stays down before retreating from the case entirely. The Hi-Y club could file its own lawsuit for a right to display the portrait, said Hiram Sasser, an attorney with the Liberty Institute, which helped defend the school. But its members haven’t made any plans yet.
Howard expects most of the residents to be disappointed. "Obviously, the majority of people in our community wanted it to stay up somewhere in the school district," he said. "This all happened so fast, I don't know that anybody has had time to digest it."