The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU of Ohio) and Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) have filed suit against Jackson City School District demanding removal of a portrait of Jesus Christ that has been displayed in Jackson Middle School for decades. The complaint was filed February 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of three anonymous plaintiffs.
“This is a challenge to the constitutionality of the maintenance and display of a portrait depicting Jesus Christ in the Jackson Middle School which is located within the jurisdiction of Defendant, Jackson City School District,” the complaint reads. “The 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.”
ACLU of Ohio and FFRF are demanding an injunction to have the painting removed and prevent Jackson City Schools from displaying anything “substantially similar” ever again.
The complaint was filed on behalf of one Jackson Middle School student and two parents of different Jackson City School District students.
According to the complaint, one of the parents “has been forced to view the portrait numerous times upon entering the middle school to fulfill parental responsibilities.” The portrait of Jesus allegedly “imposes the beliefs of one particular religion” on the plaintiff’s child and “interferes with the way that Plaintiff chooses to teach about morality and religion.”
The other parent, whose child is in elementary school but attends events at Jackson Middle School, demands court relief on similar grounds.
The plaintiff who is a Jackson Middle School student “identifies as a person of Christian faith and is offended by the religious portrait hanging in Jackson Middle School because it portrays the image of Jesus in a manner that is inconsistent with said Plaintiff’s religious beliefs” and “expresses the Christian faith in a way that distorts [the student's] own beliefs about morality and religion.”
In a January interview with Media Trackers regarding a warning about the painting from evangelical atheist group FFRF, Jackson City Schools Superintendent Phil Howard disputed charges the district was promoting religion. Howard said he “was here for two years and didn’t even realize it was there,” and claimed some graduates of the district had never even noticed the portrait of Jesus.
After receiving FFRF’s letter, the district board of education voted unanimously to keep the painting on display, with over 300 members of the community attending the board meeting to support the portrait’s inclusion in the school “hall of honor.”
Howard indicated that he had no intention of removing the painting because FFRF – and later, ACLU of Ohio – had chosen to make an issue of a portrait that has been displayed since the 1940s with practically no complaints. The groups’ lawsuit seeks to force the district to comply on First Amendment grounds.
Lawyers from the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based rights advocacy and legal defense nonprofit, have been conducting an investigation of the case, the Vinton Daily Courier reported on February 8. Liberty Institute Director of Litigation Hiram Sasser opined that the lawsuit was “premature,” as the school and the Liberty Institute had “reached out to the ACLU and FFRF for dates they would be available to meet, so that we could include their input in the investigation before we made a final report and recommendation to the Board.”
“Rather than responding to our request to meet with them,” Sasser explained, “the ACLU and FFRF filed a lawsuit before they even knew what action the Board intended to take.”