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August 21, 2006

This weekend I’ve been batting back and forth some ideas about how best to use this space, and I would like to ask for your help. Here’s the e-mail that got me thinking:

Father Jonathan,

I spend much of my day on the Internet for research purposes. I can say without hesitation that I have yet to find a better forum for serious discussion and dialogue on what’s happening in the world than your blog. — William S., Phd.

William made me reflect for two reasons. First, he reminded me that in these turbulent times, real dialogue is as vitally important as it is hard to come by. Second, he made me examine if I am offering readers what they really want and need. While now and again I post your e-mails, consistent back-and-forth dialogue has not been high on the priority list. Some weeks, I summarize and offer opinion on two or three unrelated topics, moving unapologetically from one to the other, hoping to advance ever so slightly the quality of debate and interest in further research.

In retrospect, however, I think some of our most valuable topics have been those that have lingered on these pages through a two-or three-part series. This protracted format allows other perspectives to surface, and generally matures our take on the issues.

So here’s what I’m thinking:

• I will continue to choose topics based on the news of the day, but will also take your suggestions for issues of more lasting relevance. Keep in mind I’ll always stay within the unique niche of this blog: ethical, moral, social, and religious commentary.

• As a rule of thumb, I will dedicate at least one follow-up posting to every topic we initiate. This second or third posting will showcase some of your e-mails.

• I will start to highlight the opinions of experts, or others with a unique perspective on whatever we are discussing. With increasing frequency, major players in the different debates write in to this blog. Their contribution is very informative. I just don’t always have time to communicate it. If you know someone with expertise in our discussion topic, contact them and encourage them to send me their thoughts.

The principle behind the tweaking of our format is this: discussion among open-minded, good-spirited, and well-informed people balances the biases of the data we ingest.

Here’s a topic we’ll take up on Thursday, barring breaking news of more importance. The article below tells the story of a raging debate between the board of education of the little town of Bridgeport, West Virginia and the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. Which side is right? What are the real intentions of the leaders of both sides? And more importantly, what principles can we apply to come to a prudential decision?

God bless, Father Jonathan

Town's fight to keep painting of Christ reflects national debate

By SHAYA TAYEFE MOHAJER
Associated Press Writer

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. (AP) -- Despite the theft of the painting of Jesus Christ that once hung in a public high school here, the legal battle will continue in an effort to allow the school to have the Christian symbol.

"The most logical question is 'Now that the picture's gone, is it moot?'" said Harrison County School superintendent, Carl Friebel. "We're all in uncharted water here, but if it resurfaces, then the case wouldn't be moot."

Friebel said the school had already received offers from local churches to replace it, and an investigation to find it is ongoing.

The painting in question, which depicts Jesus in sepia tones on a large canvas and hung outside the principal's office at Bridgeport High School, had been at the school for 37 years before being stolen early Thursday morning. The theft was caught on security cameras at the school.

The painting had recently become the subject of public scrutiny after a lawsuit was brought by two civil liberties groups who said the "Head of Christ" painting sends the message that Christianity is the public school's official religion.

Tokens of Christianity, like crosses or religious mottos, can be seen in schools and government buildings all over Harrison County.

In a women's bathroom at the Harrison County Board of Education offices, there are a few amenities on the toilet. An extra roll of toilet paper. A bottle of cucumber-melon scented spray.

Alongside them sits a powder blue, leather bound pocket bible titled "New Testament: Psalms Proverbs."

On Tuesday, when the board of education announced that Bridgeport would be a battleground to preserve a decidedly Christian aesthetic in public spaces, the decision was met with cheers.

The school board is hopeful that the community in Bridgeport, a town of nearly 8,000 people served by 40 nearby churches, will help finger the suspect. The surveillance tapes show a white man with approximately 5'7" height and 220 to 240 lbs who hides his face from the cameras while taking the painting.

Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas and an expert in separation of church and state cases, says communities all over the country are fighting to keep Christian monuments, crosses and portraits in place, encouraged by the Bush Administration's conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"With the two Ten Commandment cases last year, they tell you the court is comfortable with displays that have been up a long time, and have an interfaith aspect -- as the Ten Commandments do since they are relevant to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But they're not in public schools," Laycock said.

"Schools are considered the most sensitive location because with children, personal matters like religion are to be left to parents, not government."

In Harrison County, at least one board member is prepared to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We have decided to step up to the plate here. This is important to us and reflects what our community wants in the schools," Queen said after the decision to go to court was announced.

The board vowed earlier not to spend public money defending itself, but an outside group, called the Christian Freedom Fund, raised more than $150,000 for a defense fund, including $6,700 raised by students at the school. The Alliance Defense Fund, a national legal organization founded in part by Christian group Focus on the Family, has been selected as lead counsel in the case.

"I feel proud to be a West Virginian and an American today because of what these people did here," said actor Mayf Nutter, who helped lead the fundraising effort. "They said they would not be pushed off their own porch."

Despite the monetary support, Laycock says it's not always indicative of a unified community standard.

"These religiously-homogoneous small towns may have a large majority of a single faith, but they're not nearly as unanimous as they might imagine," Laycock said, explaining that people of other faiths, non-believers and Christians don't want their religion mixed with government.

The two civil liberties groups that brought the lawsuit on the behalf of local plaintiffs, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, don't believe it's up to the community to decide.

"I think what you're dealing with is a small group of rabble-rousers that only want to live with people who live as they do. My answer to that is go to a private school, go to a parochial school; don't go to a public school," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the West Virginia ACLU.

But for some community members, the distinction is not so simple and they say their religion does not take a back seat to anything. Bridgeport parent Pattae Kinney calls herself "a parent, a principal and a Christian," and says she doesn't understand why her daughter's school is being singled out.

"My take on this is that our country was founded on Christian principles. It's is on our money, -- 'In God We Trust' -- it's in our pledge of allegiance, it's a part of our lives," Kinney said. "I know our community and we're very in favor of keeping this painting."

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