The nation's foremost civil liberties and freethought groups have joined forces in a federal lawsuit that seeks to force an Ohio public school to remove a portrait of Jesus Christ from its entranceway.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio and the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District in the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. The suit was filed on behalf of "Sam Doe," a student at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, and two parents of children who attend the school. It seeks the removal of a portrait of Jesus Christ, who Christians worship as the "Son of God" and the long-awaited Messiah of the Old Testament. The painting, a print of Warner Sallman's "Head of Christ," currently hangs in a prominent location on a wall at the entrance to the school. It has been on display at the school since 1947.
The lawsuit alleges that the display of the Jesus portrait is an unconstitutional promotion of religion.
"The maintenance and display of the portrait has the effect of advancing and endorsing one religion, improperly entangling the State in religious affairs, and violating the personal consciences of the plaintiffs," the lawsuit alleges.
"The school system was warned weeks ago that this religious display is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and must be removed," ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman said in a statement. "They have chosen to continue displaying the portrait, making legal action necessary."
School officials have cited the fact that the portrait has been hanging in the school for generations without complaint as justification for its presence.
"Separation of church and state is a bedrock constitutional principle and one of our nation's oldest traditions," the ACLU's Hardiman countered. "The fact that this portrait has been on display for many years does not change the fact that the school system is violating the Constitution by inserting themselves in matters of religion."
"We are shocked and surprised to hear about this lawsuit," Jackson City School District Superintendent Phil Howard, who is named as a defendant in the case, said in a statement published in the Jackson Times-Journal. "FFRF has asked us to do an investigation, which we started almost immediately. The investigation is almost complete and our attorneys are going to make a report and recommendations at our next board meeting on an appropriate course of action."
Freethought Today, the FFRF newspaper, reported that Howard told 300 pro-portrait supporters on January 8 that he would refuse to remove the painting because it was a gift from a student group and had "historical significance."
"I'm certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wisconsin, who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down," a defiant Howard told WKKJ.
Former Jackson Middle School student Erika Keaton, who now has a child attending seventh grade there, says she is "appalled" by the lawsuit. "I would see that picture every day. It meant hope to me," Keaton told WBNS.