A portrait of Jesus Christ was taken down by the Ohio school district, one that’s been hanging from its stairs since 1947, because of concerns about the potential costs of a federal lawsuit against its display.
The superintendent of Jackson City Schools said the decision was made after the district’s insurance company declined to cover litigation expenses. He said the faculty adviser and two student members of the Hi-Y Club, a Christian-based service club that the school says owns the portrait, took it down at his direction.
“At the end of the day, we just couldn’t roll the dice with taxpayer money,” Superintendent Phil Howard told The Associated Press. “When you get into these kinds of legal battles, you’re not talking about money you can raise with bake sales and car washes. It’s not fair to take those resources from our kids’ education.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation had sued on behalf of a student and two parents, calling the portrait an unconstitutional promotion of religion in a public school. The student and parents weren’t identified publicly by the groups, saying they would face backlash from portrait supporters, some of whom had suggested that they should leave town and find another school.
An ACLU spokesman said the school disclosed its decision at a federal court hearing Tuesday in Columbus. The organization will wait to see whether the portrait stays down.
“The case is still open; there was no actual ruling (by the court),” spokesman Nick Worner said. But he added there would be no reason to pursue a court order if the portrait isn’t put back up.
A U.S. District Court order issued in Columbus on Wednesday stated that the plaintiffs had agreed to temporarily withdraw their motion for a preliminary injunction against the portrait’s display once they verify the school has removed it, and that the two sides had until the end of the day April 11 to settle the case.
Hiram Sasser, an attorney with the Liberty Institute that helped defend the school, said Wednesday that the Hi-Y Club could file its own lawsuit for the right to display the portrait, but he didn’t know its plans. Messages were left for the club’s adviser and legal representative. Howard said the portrait was in the club’s possession.
The “Head of Christ,” a popular depiction of Jesus, had been in an entranceway’s “Hall of Honor” in a middle school building that was formerly the high school. It was near portraits of dozens of prominent alumni and people with local roots such as the late four-term Ohio Gov. James Rhodes. The portrait was moved recently by the club to the current high school building.