Jesus staying in school, for now

Religious Liberty | Whitney Williams

Jesus staying in school, for now

The portrait of Jesus hangs about the entrance to Jackson Middle School, in Jackson, Ohio.
Associated Press/Photo by Columbus Dispatch, Doral Chenoweth III

Jesus will keep hanging around the halls of an Ohio middle school, for now, despite a federal lawsuit requesting his removal.

The portrait of Jesus, which has hung in the same place for 6 years, first came under fire Jan. 2 when Jackson City Schools Superintendent Phil Howard received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organization had received "a disturbing report" about the portrait, along with a photo showing it hanging in the school, the letter said.

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Then the ACLU got involved, filing suit last week with another group in the U.S. district court on behalf of an unidentified student and two parents in the school district.

So far, the district has not wavered in its support for the portrait. After a 4-0 vote on Tuesday that drew nothing but applause from the dozens gathered in an elementary school gym, the board announced it must protect its students’ right to free speech. 

Christian-based service group Hi-Y club, which commissioned the portrait in 1947, is its rightful owner, not the school, the board said. Its display is part of a "limited public forum," which allows other student clubs to hang portraits appropriate to their organizations.

"We're in a predicament where we have to balance things," Howard said after the meeting. "We can't make that kind of endorsement (of religion) as a government entity. But we also can't infringe upon the rights of our student groups and our students."

An ACLU spokesman said it wants to see details of the board's position but remains convinced the portrait violates U.S. law.

"Our position on this is clear: we believe the portrait is unconstitutional sponsorship of religion and should be removed," spokesman Nick Worner said.

At a subsequent school meeting that drew hundreds of people in support of the portrait, Howard defended it as having historical significance, said it was donated by a student group, and added that it hadn't drawn previous complaints.

"I've been here for six years and nobody ever said anything about it," Howard told The Associated Press before Tuesday's meeting. "I think probably the vast majority of the people in the community want it to stay."

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