The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in Thursday as school officials in Jackson City, Ohio are ignoring the demands of an atheist group, deciding Tuesday night during a board meeting to keep a painting of Jesus displayed in a local middle school.
The portrait, on display over an entrance at Jackson Middle School since 1947, recently came under fire when the Freedom From Religion Foundation received a complaint from an unnamed source. In a Jan. 2 letter to the district, the group demanded the portrait's removal, arguing that its presence in the public school is unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity, WKKJ reports.
"The school cannot endorse religion over non-religion," Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Rebecca Markert told The Columbus Dispatch. "That sends an incredibly powerful message of religious endorsement, specifically Christianity, which is an egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution. If this goes to court, the district would lose."
But Superintendent Phil Howard said the image is permissible because it was "student initiated" -- a gift from student group Hi-Y Club.
"I'm certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wis. who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down," Howard told WKKJ.
He spoke to a crowd of more than 300 that had gathered for a meeting on the issue Tuesday, announcing that the school will not remove the picture because it is legal and "has historical significance. It hasn't hurt anyone," The Dispatch reports.
In light of Howard's decision, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio wrote to the district Thursday warning that displaying the portrait is unconstitutional. Courts across the country, the ACLU says, have ordered schools to remove similar displays.
"Separation of church and state is one of our nation's oldest traditions," ACLU of Ohio Litigation Coordinator and Staff Attorney Drew Dennis said in a statement. "The founders of our country recognized that public institutions need to be welcoming, inclusive places for all citizens, regardless of their faith or creed… . The fact that this portrait has been hanging for many years does not change the fact that it promotes one set of religious beliefs at the expense of all others."
In one of the most recent, high profile cases against religious symbols in schools, federal courts ordered Rhode Island's Cranston High School West to remove a prayer banner displayed in the school since 1963. Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-year-old student who waged the legal battle against the school's banner, was awarded a scholarship fund for more than $40,000 by the American Humanist Association.
Freedom From Religion Foundation officials say they would consider legal action if the Jackson Middle School officials do not voluntarily remove the painting.