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 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.