Giant Portrait of Jesus Moves from Middle School to High School

Over the past couple of months, I’ve posted about a controversy at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio. They had a portrait hanging in their school, not of a student or administrator, but of Jesus:

Not only that — it had a prominent place in the school:

Last month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and ACLU of Ohio filed a federal lawsuit against the school for its unlawful promotion of religion on behalf of anonymous families who have children in the district.

The school is holding the line that they aren’t promoting religion. Instead, the portrait was put up by a student group so to take it down would be a violation of their rights.

But, just to be safe, the school is taking a precaution.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Lisa Cornwell reports that the portrait has now been moved to the local high school at the student group’s behest:

Phil Howard, superintendent of the Jackson City Schools, said [Friday] that the portrait was moved this week at the request of the Hi-Y club, which put it up in 1947 in a building that is now the middle school.

“We have to respect the rights of the club,” Howard said. “Failure to do so might open the district to even another lawsuit — this time by the [Hi-Y] club” — or violate the U.S Constitution by “turning the portrait into government speech.”

Officials have maintained that taking the portrait down would censor students’ private speech.

“It belongs to the club,” Howard said. “It’s student speech, not government speech.”

Really? That’s the argument? So if the Science Club (which doesn’t exist at their school) wanted to put up a giant poster of Charles Darwin, there would be no pushback? What if the Young Democrats (another group that doesn’t exist at the school) wanted to hang up a picture of President Obama? What if the Muslim Student Association wanted to put up a picture of Muhammad? Ok, on second thought, scratch that last one…

Anyway, would the school have given those portraits the same prominent placement they gave Jesus?

I doubt it.

Presumably, the portrait’s move to the high school would help the district make the case that this is all about the students’ wishes but, even if every student in that school was a Christian (which they aren’t), public schools can’t push Jesus down everyone’s throat like this. It’s the same reason the school can’t allow a student to get on the intercom system and start reciting Bible verses, even if it’s the student’s idea and not the school’s. It’s government promotion of religion, plain and simple, even if some students ask for it.

The ACLU is thinking along those same lines:

Nick Worner, a spokesman for the ACLU of Ohio, said yesterday that he couldn’t comment on legal strategy, but he stressed that his group’s position hasn’t changed.

“It doesn’t matter which public building the portrait is in,” Worner said. “It’s an unconstitutional endorsement of religion on the part of a public school.”

No word yet on when a ruling is going to be made in the case.

(via Religion Clause)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/StrangeCandee Candee Bell

    When I was in school if I wanted to paint a nude portrait and hang it up on school grounds I would have been forced to take it down. It is the school’s decision NOT the students. But it doesn’t surprise me this school district is hiding behind their “student’s wishes” because Christians love to hide behind their “god” when things go sour.

    • SecularPatriot

      …because Christians love to hide behind their “god” children when things go sour.

      FTFY

      • http://www.facebook.com/StrangeCandee Candee Bell

        That too. :)

  • Kengi

    Now they have an empty spot, hopefully a student will give them a giant portrait of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

    • TheBlackCat13

      Don’t be silly, that would be offensive. They can’t be offensive.

  • A3Kr0n

    Jackson, a city of about 7,000 in mostly rural Appalachian
    Ohio. The per capita income for the city was $14,855. What can we do to help?

    • Kengi

      Encourage them to not waste education money on a lawsuit they will likely lose but to instead spend it on education of their children.

  • Achron Timeless

    The student’s wishes? Bullshit. When I was in highschool it was the parents trying to push their kids to have morning prayers by the flagpole outside, not the kids themselves. It’s almost always the parents that are acting through the kids. The rest of the time they’ve just trained them to want that sort of thing, so while they may be acting of their own volition, it’s hardly their idea.

  • observer

    Well, it’s nice to know that Jesus is getting a proper education.

    How is being asked to move the portrait into a church or someone’s private home regarded as being against someone’s Christian beliefs?
    Are they uncomfortable at Jesus looking down on them, at the fierce fire and brimstone they preach that’s driving people away from Christianity?
    Or perhaps they don’t like the idea of Jesus watching at the hypocrisy they may display behind closed doors away from the world.

    • allein

      Proper education? It took him 66 years to make it to high school..! ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/stan.theman.904 Stan Theman

    You would think that those students who are believers could simply carry his picture in their wallets, even if it meant finding another spot for the trusty condom…lol

    • Glasofruix

      If they’re keeping condoms in their wallets it might explain the high teen pregnancy rates…

  • anniewhoo

    When I first read that it was moved to the local high school, I assumed their reasoning was that the student group that put it up was now in high school. But the portrait was put up in 1947! Aside from their argument being utterly ridiculous, do schools really keep things around from student groups for nearly 70 years?

    • pagansister

      If it has/had hung for almost 70 years, it’s called “history, tradition” and one wouldn’t want to mess with that! I seriously ought to just be out of any/all schools in that area. Donate it to a religious charity or something.

  • Rain

    Ironically that guy isn’t even Jesus. It is probably some guy off the street who posed for the portrait. Most scholars today believe Jesus looked exactly like the blue guy from the Lollipop Guild:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhjRUKCKIG4

    • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

      The guy is supposed to be Jesus. It’s Sallman’s “Head of Christ”, which has been reproduced over half a billion times.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

        Not according to this person:

        What a waste of time. What are they talking about religion for? That is a picture of some unknown model. It is not Jesus. It is nothing like what Jesus would have looked like. Therefore, there is no religion involved to begin with. Case dismissed. Doesn’t anyone have any common sense. Is the ACLU trying to say that because some people think that this picture is of Jesus, even though it is not, that makes it religious. Are our tax dollars involved in this stupidity?

        • Christine

          It’s what the face stands for that counts, and everybody knows who that’s supposed to be. Are you saying that if they put up a crucifix instead, nobody should protest because it doesn’t look exactly like THE crucifix? Yes, our tax money should be used to help separate church and state if necessary.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

            I’m not saying anything. The above was taken from a conservative news site.

  • Librepensadora

    Do you think these Jesus-folk think this is what he really looked like?

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      I think they really do think that Jesus looked like a Norwegian model who poses for bodice-ripping romance novel covers, and that he either actually posed for that iconic portrait or the artist was just as “divinely inspired” as those who wrote the various books of the Bible.

      • observer

        Jesus Christ is…Conon the Barbarian!

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        fastest way to get this off the wall for good, everywhere in this district?

        have a Christian student object, and demand replacement with a “historically accurate” depiction of Jesus. because this euro-jeebus is “offending her religion and is unChristian idolatry.” quote bible verses which describe Jesus as having “hair like wool, skin the color of copper” etc.

        there are lots of paintings of “black Jesus” out there. more Semitic looking Jesuses too. push for one of those to replace German Jesus, and I guarantee you the school board will run away and put this piece of crap in a closet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Markus-Hayden-Sutherland/1634126207 Markus Hayden Sutherland

    Why no portraits of the Buddha, Mohammad and Joseph Smith? There is independent historical evidence that these men actually existed whereas there is NO independent evidence that “Jesus of Nazareth” existed and certainly not one that was executed by the Romans.

    • Artor

      Well, the Muslims have a bit of a hang-up about images of Mohammed…

  • Renshia

    Lying for jesus, it’s the christian way…

  • Gary

    Hemant, you’re leaving out a key fact. The school declared the hallway wall where the portrait now hangs to be a limited public forum where student groups can hang pictures relevant to their focus. Also, I’ve seen a picture of the hallway, and there is plenty of room for many other pictures of similar size. So it appears the school has to allow the hanging of pictures like Darwin, Obama, etc. if they are within the policy (which it appears they would be). Of course, the school is probably betting that no one will want to hang another “controversial” picture, but they will have to allow it if someone does. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that the only reason they created this limited public forum was to find a way to keep the Jesus picture up, but it seems they’ve come up with a legal solution. I could be wrong…I’m no expert on public forums.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

      Their public forum sounds a bit stilted:

      “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.”

      That last part “appropriate to their organizations” sounds like it might be used to reject what some students want to put up.

      What this school needs is a Secular Student Alliance.

      • Gary

        The actual wording in the policy is “portraits of inspirational figures central to the club’s meaning and purpose”. Yes, it does seem to make it fairly easy for the school to reject something.

      • Gus Snarp

        The best club portrait I can think of isn’t Darwin, or Einstein, but Bob Marley. A school Rastafarian club could definitely find a poster that would cause controversy while still obviously being appropriate to their organization.

    • coyotenose

      They say that, but it probably isn’t going to fly with any competent judge. The fact that their changes and statements are very obvious deceptions intended to keep the portrait up makes it a clear endorsement. I mean, claiming that the Hi-Y Club might sue them for having the image up in the wrong place? Nobody is going to fall for that.

      • Gary

        I’d completely agree with you if the portrait was still up in the middle school. But they moved it to the high school, so I’m not so sure now.

        • Gus Snarp

          I’m afraid I don’t see how moving it to the high school changes anything.

          • Gary

            You’re right that it doesn’t change the fact that the school district is still displaying the picture to students. But it does seem to rectify the problem in this particular lawsuit in the sense that the complainants are no longer being subjected to the picture (unless they see it at the high school also).

            • Gus Snarp

              Hmm. I guess I see your point. So they need to amend the lawsuit and find a new plaintiff. On the other hand, a judge might not look too kindly on this attempt to circumvent a lawsuit without really changing anything. That’s definitely one for the lawyers.

            • allein

              I wonder if they can argue that the current plaintiffs still have standing because they will just be seeing it in another year or two if it stays up in the high school.

        • baal

          Let’s say the school moves to have the case thrown out since the portrait is moved and the court action ends. They then put the painting back up again. Opps, new lawsuit, so they take it down. Rinse and repeat.

          This is not a new issue at law. When the defendant can easily play this game, the solution is to not end the law suit but take it to the end and get a judges order. The plaintiff can sue for enforcement of a judgment instead of bringing a new suit. i.e. have the cops take it down and keep it down.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=12436314 Tyler Hopkins

      Limited public forum or not, the school has ultimate control over what goes on that wall. If a student organization wanted to put up an image of hardcore pornography, that would be inappropriate and illegal, and they wouldn’t allow it.

      The same applies to this picture of Jesus. It’s inappropriate and illegal for COMPLETELY different reasons, of course, but it’s still something that should not have been allowed on the wall.

      • Gary

        Again, I’m not an expert, but I believe when a school establishes a limited public forum, it in effect relinquishes some, but not all, control over what happens in the forum. So they can disallow things that are obviously inappropriate, such as profanity and sexually explicit things, but that’s it. Student religious expression seems to be a gray area in terms of appropriateness. For instance, courts have found it illegal at things like public address announcements before games, but legal in some cases in graduation ceremony speeches.

        Ultimately what will probably go against the school in this case is that a court will find that the painting is actually the property of the school and not the student club, making it government speech and not student speech.

    • Gus Snarp

      I don’t think it’s legal at all. I could see a case where it would be legal, such as a bulletin board where it was placed as a flier among others, but simply hanging it on the wall and claiming that other groups can hang something there just doesn’t cut it and likely will not stand up to legal scrutiny. This is a framed picture intended to be fairly permanent on a wall with nothing else. When they hang Ganesha on the right, Darwin on the left, and Bob Marley with a spliff a little farther down, then maybe they’ll have a case. As long as this remains the only such image in the space, or the most prominent, then they’re obligation to avoid promoting a religion takes precedence over the students’ (already limited, by existing legal precedent) right to free speech.

      • Gary

        What if the school put up a sign in the hallway that said “This wall is for student clubs to display pictures of inspirational figures central to their meaning and purpose” and under the Jesus picture had a sign that said “The Hi-Y club”?

  • http://twitter.com/natalieasera Natalie A. Sera

    And what amuses me is that the picture most definitely DOESN’T portray what Jesus would have looked like, anyway. Which makes it pure idolatry, even though the Christians don’t know it and wouldn’t admit it, even if they did know (There is an article in Popular Mechanics about a reconstruction of what a Galilean man of Jesus’ time would have looked like). Now, if this particular painting wasn’t so widely considered to be Jesus, and if it were clearly labeled as “Random, Unidentified Non-Christian Man” would it be hanging so prominently? Doubt it!

    • Gus Snarp

      All portraits of Jesus should be replaced with this, forthwith. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186

      • Antinomian

        If that’s what Jesus truly looked like and he came back today, saying the same things he supposedly said 2000 years ago, Homeland Security would rendition his ass to Guantanamo so fast his daddy couldn’t find him.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EYZCDG3OAPGD3PDG7XD7SM7OAM ElizabethS

    Hmmmm, I wish their god had said something about idol worship…maybe if he had put it on some sort of top ten list.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Duncan/535485993 Paul Duncan

    Cowards running that school.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Duncan/535485993 Paul Duncan

    I would enjoy seeing a portrait of Darwin right next to this. I got not prob with Jesus, but he needs some buddies.


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