With Jesus portrait federal lawsuit looming, Ohio school to decide how to respond

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 Fromlowed 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?"