The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wisc., filed suit against a rural Ohio middle school for displaying a large portrait of Jesus.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, collectively identified as “Sam Doe,” against the Jackson City School District, the school board and school Superintendent Phil Howard. The plaintiffs include one student at Jackson Middle School, where the portrait hangs, and two parents of children who attend the school.
“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,” the lawsuit’s complaint reads.
The lawsuit was filed after the groups contacted school authorities to ask that the portrait be removed. The painting has been on display since about 1947, when it was donated to the school by a student group, according to Fox News.
“We’re not violating the law and the picture is legal because it has historical significance. It hasn’t hurt anyone,” Howard said at a school board meeting last month, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
ACLU spokesman Nick Worner called tradition irrelevant when it comes to matters of religious freedom, but then said, “Separation of church and state is one of the nation’s oldest traditions,” as reported by Fox.
The Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, representing the school district, earlier wrote to the ACLU and Freedom From Religion, saying the institute was investigating the issue. The institute said the portrait has been in place for some 65 years, apparently without anyone complaining about it.
Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for Liberty Institute, said Thursday the lawsuit was premature. He said Liberty Institute planned to present its findings and recommendations to the school board at next week’s meeting. He declined to discuss the findings, but said the goal was to make sure the legal rights of all involved were considered.
“It’s obviously a delicate balance,” he said.