School refuses to take down religious portrait

February 13, 2013

Ryan Scott Ottney

PDT Staff Writer

The Jackson City School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night, deciding not to remove a portrait of Jesus hanging in the school, and denying a federal lawsuit’s claim the portrait’s display unconstitutionally promotes religion in a public school. Saying that they would protect students’ free speech rights, the vote drew cheers and applause from the crowd.

The challenge to the Jesus 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, along with a photo showing it hanging in the 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 last week 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.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said in a court filing that their clients would face harassment and intimidation, citing threatening social media comments saying those disagreeing with the portrait should leave Jackson and go to another school.

“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 said the portrait belongs to the student group that put it up, the Hi-Y club, and the portrait’s frame is inscribed with the club’s name and the Christian-based service group is the portrait’s owner, not the school. The board said the portrait is part of a “limited public forum,” and that the Jackson schools will allow other student clubs to hang portraits appropriate to their organizations.

“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.”

An ACLU spokesman said the organization remains convinced that the portrait is unconstitutional.

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

It’s the latest legal clash over religious displays in public places. A school district in nearby Adams County battled for years for a Ten Commandments display that courts ruled to be overly religious. However, federal courts including the U.S. Supreme Court have approved some displays if their main purpose was non-religious.

Ryan Scott Ottney can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 287, or rottney@civitasmedia.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.