CINCINNATI — A Jesus portrait that has embroiled a southern Ohio school district in a federal lawsuit has been moved from the middle school to a high school at the preference of a Christian-based student club that the district views as the picture’s owner.
Phil Howard, superintendent of the Jackson City Schools, said Friday that the portrait was moved earlier this week at the request of the Hi-Y club, which put it up in 1947 in a building that is now the middle school.
A complaint about the portrait left the district in the midst of an ongoing national debate over what displays of religion are constitutional. The lawsuit filed last month against the district by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation contends the portrait unconstitutionally promotes religion at school.
Schools Superintendent Phil Howard said he is not sure what, if any, effect moving the portrait might have on the lawsuit, but he said the district had no choice.
“We have to respect the rights of the club,” Howard said. “Failure to do so might open the district to even another lawsuit — this time by the H-Y club” — or violate the U.S Constitution by “turning the portrait into government speech.”
Officials have maintained that taking the portrait down would censor students’ private speech.
“It belongs to the club,” Howard said. “It’s student speech, not government speech.”
The school board had voted last month to keep the portrait up while allowing other student groups to hang portraits related to their focuses. Howard said that the board policy created a limited public forum at both the middle school and the high school for student groups to be able to display portraits.
“The club has the right to hang it in either school,” Howard said.
Bob Eisnaugle, an art teacher and adviser to the Hi-Y service club, said that the group of about 60 students decided last week to move the portrait to the high school, where the club meets and where its current members are students. He said the middle school building housed the high school when the club presented the portrait, and it had just never been moved to the newer building.
Eisnaugle said the club wants to keep the portrait up because “the club is Christian-based and it represents the club and the Christian principles that the club values.”
He said the purposes of the club haven’t changed through the years “and neither have the principles it values.”
The portrait now is hanging on a wall alongside a trophy case.
Nick Worner, a spokesman for the ACLU of Ohio, said Friday that he couldn’t comment on legal strategy, but he stressed that the group’s position hasn’t changed.
“It doesn’t matter which public building the portrait is in,” Worner said. “It’s an unconstitutional endorsement of religion on the part of a public school.”
The 2,500-student district is in Jackson, a city of about 7,000 in mostly rural Appalachian Ohio.