Giant Portrait of Jesus Costs Public School District ‘Nearly Six Figures’ in Legal Fees to the ACLU and FFRF

You may recall that, earlier this year, there was a giant portrait of Jesus hanging in a prominent location at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio:

After being sued by the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the portrait was taken down… and moved to a local high school:

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.”

That made no sense, of course, since it wasn’t like giant portraits of Charles Darwin (for the Science Club) and President Obama (Young Democrats!) would have received the same prominence (nor should they).

The ACLU made clear that it didn’t matter which school the portrait was in — it didn’t belong in the district at all.

At the time, the district decided to settle the case. They were going to lose, so it made sense to cut their losses, get rid of the portrait, and move on.

That was the last I heard of the whole saga… until yesterday.

Turns out the case never settled because the district was lying about getting rid of the portrait:

The two sides then began negotiating a formal settlement, but those talks stalled when it was discovered that the portrait had never actually been removed from the school. Instead, it was moved to an art closet, and then brought out for a prayer meeting on the school lawn which was attended by school faculty and administrators.

How on earth did they think they could get away with that…?

In response, the ACLU and FFRF stepped away from the settlement table, increased the fees they were owed by the district for wasting their time, and filed another complaint.

Yesterday, after six months of arguing, the district finally surrendered, though Superintendent Phil Howard still refuses to admit that his side did anything wrong:

… Our attorneys felt like this was the best case scenario for the district because the legal fees were mounting by the day. The settlement did not cost the district or taxpayers any money because it was paid for by the district insurance company. According to our legal counsel it made more sense under the circumstance to resolve the matter because further litigation could have exposed the district to a much larger claim by the ACLU for their legal fees.”

How about a “We’re sorry for violating the Constitution”? How about a “We’re sorry for making non-Christians in our district feel alienated or unwelcome in any way”?

As it stands, the district (or their insurer, anyway) owes the ACLU and FFRF $95,000 in legal costs — $80,000 for the two groups and $3,000 for each of the five anonymous plaintiffs.

The ACLU pointed out that this whole situation could have been avoided if the district simply followed the law:

This case could have ended before it began if the school had simply acknowledged that it is not the government’s place to endorse one specific religion in a public school that children are legally required to attend,” said [ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James] Hardiman. “This is a basic constitutional principle backed up by decades of case law. We hope that other public schools will spare themselves such lengthy and costly legal fights in the future.”

It’s possible, articles say, that the Hi-Y club could sue to put the portrait back up, but I have a hard time understanding how they have any case here at all. A religious club has a right to meet at a public school, but not to have their views endorsed by the district, which this portrait would certainly convey.

(Thanks to Richard for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • 3lemenope

    Speaking of insurance premiums going up, this district is going to have a shock in store.

    • brianmacker

      Will they? That thought crossed my mind, and would happen in a free market, but what are the odds there is some law requiring coverage be the same for all schools in the name of “fairness”?

      • 3lemenope

        …what are the odds there is some law requiring coverage be the same for all schools in the name of “fairness”?

        A value indistinguishable for our purposes from zero.

        • brianmacker

          So you are an expert on Ohio law?

      • Erp

        So the insurance company raises it for all the schools in the state (or it might cease to do business in that state). Note the cost can’t be the same for all districts as districts aren’t equal. A district with 10,000 students is, all things equal, going to have more legal trouble then one with 1,000 students. A district with older properties (or even just more square footage/acreage) may have more hazards that they might get sued over. The insurance company might raise rates or it might make conditions stricter (e.g., they have to notify the insurance company early, perhaps on a first complaint before it even gets to the courts, and have the company lawyers look at the evidence, or insist that the district’s attorney is approved by the insurance company).

        • brianmacker

          So, if there were such a rule this particular school could shift costs to other schools in Ohio. Also if there were a law at the national level it could shift costs to schools across the nation. One of the downsides of national insurance schemes.

          BTW, what you describe is pretty much the purpose of insurance companies in the first place. They spread risk (and cost) across demographics they can identify. If they cannot separate smokers from non-smokers for whatever reason then they will have to spread the costs of smoking to non-smokers (or vice versa). That can be either because it is practically impossible to determine or because of some fiat government rule that forbids the collection of such information.

          Many people who voted for Obama are getting a rude wake up call when they find their insurance premiums are now spiking of various fiat rules. Poetic justice.

    • http://www.ameridane.org/ thingwarbler

      More to the point, surely the insurance company will be suing the school to recoup losses when they realize how recklessly the school acted.As in: I can have car insurance, but if I’m found to be driving under the influence with a suspended license, then my insurance company may not be real keen on paying for the damage I cause around town.

  • C Peterson

    A quick check at the Ohio Department of Education website shows that the Jackson City school district spent $8911 per pupil this year. So this useless legal effort cost them the same as a full year’s education for 11 students.

    Anybody in that district who cares about how their tax dollars are spent should be seeking to recall the entire school board and have the superintendent fired.

    • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

      As long as it doesn’t effect the football team or basketball squad, then there is no need to panic. They can always defund art, music and science classes to make up the difference.

      • tsig

        In fact we can close the building and send home all the teachers as long as the football stadium remains open.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          AMERICA!!!!!!

          • Mira

            No, no, it’s “MURICA!”

    • Beth

      Yeah right, the good Christians of the district will scream pursecusion and praise the staff. I guess he is doing god’s work since god doesn’t seem to do anything himself…

  • T Shull

    Those tax payers will now be hit with higher insurance premiums when they lose coverage from the carrier who got hit with such stupid claims (and how they continued to get coverage for the claims in spite of their intentional acts to defy law stymies me). If they get picked up by any new carrier in the future, those premiums will now take into account the ludicrous behavior of the administration and their complete lack of risk management to avoid similar claims in the future. So to say that the tax payers won’t suffer is an outright lie.

    • UWIR

      And who owns the insurance company? I’m sure at least some residents have invested in it.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Turns out the case never settled because the district was lying about getting rid of the portrait…
    …The two sides then began negotiating a formal settlement, but those talks stalled when it was discovered that the portrait had never actually been removed from the school.

    But, but, they’re Christians! They wouldn’t lie, would they? They wouldn’t negotiate in bad faith, would they?
    And, and, they’re educators! They wouldn’t teach their students by example to be lying, sneaky, deceitful, cheating, duplicitous lawbreakers who shrug off responsibility and blithely pass the consequences of their crimes and their lies on to the insurance company and ultimately the community, would they??

    Maybe they read Joe Klein’s book, How To Be a Lying Weasel and Look Pious and Superior Doing It.

    • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

      Funny how you never see Joe Klein being a duplicitous scumbag… oh.. wait…never mind…

  • OhioAtheist

    I’ve been to Jackson. It’s a very backwards place. It’s very poor, uneducated, racist, and drug-infested. And they’ve wasted what little money they have with this nonsense.

  • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

    “it wasn’t like giant portraits of Charles Darwin (for the Science Club)… would have received the same prominence (nor should they).”

    I disagree. They should receive such prominence. These are schools, institutions of learning; what other people should have their portraits there other than people of great intellectual accomplishment? It is precisely the great scientists, artists , historians, educators, writers and such who deserve prominence in our schools.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      I agree with you, but I’m afraid that if you said that to the Jackson City School Board, they would look at you as if you were G’lingsp*lff Tudh who just landed from Planet Snerrrrhhrnn.

      • Jeff

        Hey, I know G’lingsp*lff. Great guy … um, I think he is a guy….

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          G’lingsp*lff is a h’h, one of the five gender-like variants needed to co-mingle their genetic-like material to produce offspring-like offsprings. Foreplay takes weeks. The traditional roles of the h’h are food-like substance preparation, fungus-like sorta-living-thing artistic arranging, monster truck-like vehicle racing, and space exploration.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Liars for Jesus!

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      You forgot to add the ™

  • Mick

    How on earth did they think they could get away with that…?

    Silly old earth laws mean absolutely nothing when you are brown-nosing the Lord God Almighty. Every day the portrait stayed in place, the Jesus freaks gained extra points towards their trip to heaven. And when the portrait finally came down they were able to play the martyr card and score even more points.

  • Chris

    Thought you’d want this typo pointed out to you, Hemant.

    Yesterday, after six months of arguing, the district finally surrendered, thought Superintendent Phil Howard still refuses to admit that his side did anything wrong:

  • JMM

    Jesus will pay them back with love

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I take it the local churches will not be holding fundraisers to cover the cost.

  • Adrian M. Kleinbergen

    Put that thing in a church where it belongs.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Gay Indiana Jones: “That picture belongs in a closet!”

      Christian Panama Hat*: “So do you!” *has thugs punch him*

      *I never realized he didn’t have a name. And holy crap, that movie is 24 years old now.

  • baal

    Most insurance contracts have escape clauses for the insurer if the insured are engaging in willful bad conduct. I’d like to review the one this school system has.

  • beatonfam

    “The settlement did not cost the district or taxpayers any money because it was paid for by the district insurance company.”

    Until the insurance company raises the premiums because the administration’s actions cost $100K in insurance payouts.

  • Pofarmer

    Why in the world would the districts insurance agency cover nothing but complete, incompetent, stupidity?

    • allein

      I thought that the insurance company had told them outright they would’t cover this if they proceeded to fight it, but maybe I’m thinking of a different case. At any rate, I’m pretty sure there was one that did that, so the school agreed to take down whatever it was that was being challenged rather than spend their own money fighting a losing battle.

    • Artor

      The insurance company should refuse payment for willful violations of clearly established law. Life insurance policies don’t usually pay out for suicides, and a car policy won’t pay out if you torch your own vehicle. Why would a school liability policy pay out when the school ignored their lawyers advice and deliberately invited indemnity?

      • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

        When that becomes common practice–when insurers finally decide to quit covering separation-clause lawsuits–I bet we’ll start seeing schools step more carefully. I can’t imagine many school districts’ taxpayers would be happy to personally foot the bill for these trials.

  • L.Long

    Of course the school did nothing wrong!
    What is wrong with hanging a an invented image of a long haired white skinned blue eyed hippy? Anyone with a brain bigger then a cockroach knows jesus was a scraggly haired scraggly beard dark skinned jew.

  • Public School Employee

    Totally agree with Holytape. This kind of shit is rampant in my district in IN. There are prayers at staff meetings, etc. I’ve seen Deans brandish Bibles at children more than once. It’s predominantly black and no one cares about separation of church and state which is routinely ignored. The sentiment about the sports teams is dead on.

  • Jim Jones

    > “There was a giant portrait of Jesus hanging in a prominent location at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio.”

    Sure doesn’t look like a Semitic Jew from the days of the Roman Empire to me. Doesn’t even look Hispanic – and would they put a portrait of the school gardener up there?

  • Intelligent Donkey

    “… the portrait … brought out for a prayer meeting on the school lawn …”

    How is that not the very definition of a graven image? Have they even read their own “holy” book?

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus%2020:4-5&version=KJV

    On the other hand, that’s not an image of Jesus. Jesus was a Jew.

  • dsmith

    It would be hilarious if the court allowed the portrait to stay but only if the image of Jesus looked like Alan Dershowitz.

  • Paula M Smolik

    “After being sued by the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the portrait was taken down”…I didn’t know you could sue a portrait. Yes, I’m a pedant.

  • UWIR

    Making some faceless corporation shell out money because of your mistakes is a victimless crime. Like punching someone in the dark.


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