School takes down religious portrait

April 3, 2013

Ryan Scott Ottney

PDT Staff Writer

JACKSON, Ohio — Following a hearing in the U.S. District Court on Tuesday, the Jackson City School District voluntarily agreed to remove a portrait of Jesus hanging in its high school.

The challenge to the portrait began with a Jan. 2 letter to Jackson Superintendent Phil Howard from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which said it had received “a disturbing report” about the portrait hanging in the Jackson Middle School. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio asked the school to remove the portrait, and when the school did not comply the ACLU and the FFRF filed a suit in U.S. district court on behalf on an unidentified student and two parents in the school district.

The anonymous student self-identifies as a Christian, but feels the portrait portrays the Christian faith in a way that distorts his or her beliefs. The other plaintiffs claim the portrait interferes with the way they have chosen to teach their children about morality and religion by promoting one belief system above all others.

“Religious belief, or the lack thereof, is often a very private and very closely held family tradition,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman. “The government has no place interfering in these matters by promoting one specific set of beliefs in a school that children are legally required to attend.”

The school board initially refused to take down the portrait, saying that it belonged to the student group (the Hi-Y Club) that first put it up in 1947, and the the club is the portrait’s owner, not the school. The school also said that it is part of a “limited public forum,” which would allow other student clubs to hang portraits appropriate to their organizations as well.

“We’re in a predicament where we have to balance things,” Howard said. “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.”

He said removing the portrait could leave the school open to another lawsuit, from the student organization.

On March 15, the school moved the portrait from the middle school to the high school. Then on Tuesday, the school agreed to take down the painting.

“Our insurance company denied coverage and we cannot risk the taxpayer money at this time,” Howard said. “We have ordered the Hi-Y Club to take down the portrait to avoid the court ordering us to do so. The portrait was taken down this morning (Wednesday) by the Hi-Y ad visor and some members this morning. We understand that may lead to a lawsuit from the Hi-Y Club but we had little choice in the matter.”

Ryan Scott Ottney can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 287, or rottney@civitasmedia.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story. For breaking news, follow Ryan on Twitter, @PDTWriter.