CINCINNATI – A southern Ohio school board plans to decide Tuesday evening how to respond to a federal lawsuit seeking removal of a portrait of Jesus that has hung in its middle school for decades after being donated by a student group.
The lawsuit filed last week in U.S. district court on behalf on an unidentified student and two parents claims the large, prominently displayed portrait in the Jackson Middle School unconstitutionally promotes religion.
The Jackson City Schools board will hear from attorneys who have been looking into the issue for the district. Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of public religious displays, said attorneys will present their findings and recommendations. He called the lawsuit "premature," and school officials agreed.
"We are shocked and surprised to hear about this lawsuit," Schools Superintendent Phil Howard said in a statement on the district's web site. He said the board would decide "on an appropriate course of action."
The portrait was donated by a student group and has been in the school building since about 1947, when it was the high school building, school officials said. The portrait hangs in a hallway near a side entrance.
Tuesday's meeting was scheduled to be held in an elementary school gymnasium in Jackson, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati.
The challenge to the Jesus portrait began with a Jan. 2 letter to Howard from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which said it had received "a disturbing report" about the portrait, along with a photo showing it hanging in the school.
At a subsequent school meeting that drew hundreds of people in support of the portrait, Howard defended it as having historical significance, said it was donated by a student group, and added that it hadn't drawn previous complaints.
"I've been here for six years and nobody ever said anything about it," Howard told The Associated Press before Tuesday's meeting. "I think probably the vast majority of the people in the community want it to stay."
The plaintiffs are referred to only by "Sam Doe" in the lawsuit filed by The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. A U.S. magistrate in Columbus ruled that the plaintiffs' names could remain publicly anonymous, while being filed under seal and provided to defendants' attorneys.
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.
The lawsuit against the Jackson schools contends that "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 Plaintiffs."
It's the latest legal clash over religious displays in public places. A school district in nearby Adams County, also in mostly rural Appalachian Ohio, 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.
"The basic rule is that the government is not allowed to endorse religion," said Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "So there would be two questions here: Is the portrait an endorsement of religion — rather than, say, a recognition of some historical fact — and if so, is it attributable to the government — the school — rather than the students?"
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