OHIO public school to keep Jesus portrait hanging

0
59

An Ohio school district decided Tuesday night to keep a portrait of Jesus hanging in the school where it’s been 65 years, denying a federal lawsuit’s claim the portrait’s display unconstitutionally promotes religion in a public school. The Jackson City Schools board offered a constitutional justification of its own in voting 4-0 to keep the portrait up in its middle school, saying it must protect students’ free speech rights. The vote drew cheers and applause from the dozens of people gathered in the elementary school gymnasium. After huddling with attorneys in closed session for more than an hour, the school board said the portrait belongs to the student group that put it up, the Hi-Y club. 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 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. 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. 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 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?”