School already lost money in a settlement over Jesus picture.

Remember that Ohio middle school principal who insists the picture of Jesus he has hanging up is legal (and who is ready to piss away education dollars on his ill-formed legal opinion)?  It turns out that a case has already been settled over that exact same picture.

There really is no debate about the nature of the work in question. The portrait is a copy of Warner Sallman’s 1941 painting “Head of Christ,” a widely recognized piece of devotional art. (The official website for Sallman’s works says there were more than 500 million copies of it in existence as of 1994.)

But the Associated Press reported that District Superintendent Phil Howard told 300 people gathered for a school board meeting yesterday that he won’t be removing the picture because of its historical significance. It’s apparently been on display since 1947.

That argument doesn’t quite hold up. Whether the portrait has been up for two minutes or 200 years, its permanent display in a public school is blatantly unconstitutional. Just ask the Harrison County School Board in West Virginia.

Back in 2006, the Harrison County board settled a lawsuit filed by Americans United and the West Virginia ACLU over the same “Head of Christ” portrait that had been in a public high school there for more than 30 years. Although there was a bit of a twist in that case – the portrait was stolen before the settlement – the board did agree not to display religious material in schools.

More than likely, the Harrison County board figured out that it was going to lose that case, and a settlement was the only sensible option. Howard and his colleagues would be wise to learn from Harrison County because they are headed for expensive and wasteful litigation.

Of course, why would he care?  It’s the resources of the kids on the line for what the principal does, not his own money.  It makes it really easy to take a stand when it’s people around you who stand to lose something for it.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Otrame

    Ah, yes, the dirty blonde, blue-eyed Jesus. I have always thought that painting was THE most insipid, dishonest portrayal of that particular Israeli Jew outside a Christian coloring book. It’s a horrible painting.

  • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    The Principal’s principle is his principal concern.

    • IslandBrewer


  • Patrick

    I am curious about whether the context in which the picture hangs could lead to a different ruling. Your previous post on the issue includes a quote explaining that the portrait was hanging in a “hall of honor, along with other faces.”

    What other faces would need to be included in order for the picture to not be breaking the establishment clause? If alongside Jesus there were pictures of Socrates and other philosophers, for instance, then the context would suggest that the school is simply elevating Jesus to the status of an ancient philosopher. Right? Everything depends upon the other faces and how they contextually define the use of the word “honor”. It would seem to me that unless the other faces are also distinctly Christian figures being honored primarily for their Christian identity then the school is not actually establishing any religion at all. Teaching that Jesus is worthy of honor could very well be legally different from teaching that he is worthy of worship. Your thoughts?

    • Nate Frein

      Friendly Atheist has pictures of the portrait in situ.

      I admit, the first story I read on this made me think it was a piece of art by a student displayed with other student artworks. It was the second article I read that made it clear that this was an alumni donation, not a student work.

      Further, the work is mounted, alone on a railing overlooking a staircase. The actual “wall of honor” is to the right (facing the portrait) and following the stairs, and is perpendicular to the railing.

    • iknklast

      They often do get around the law that way; but it seems to me that teaching Jesus as worthy of honor is still taking a religious stand, particularly if they have not included Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, or any of the other myriad gods/goddesses worshiped around the country. It’s still presenting a religious opinion as a governmental opinion, and that’s why I have a problem with all those displays that include “something secular” to get around the law. They might have a chance to win on that, but it is still a mistake. Unless they also include Robert Ingersoll or Charles Darwin – which I doubt.

    • Sunny Day

      Socrates is not the central figure of an religion.
      Socrates is a teacher who is grounded in historical fact, the things he taught are appreciable in school for everyone.
      They mythological Jesus, not so much.
      But sure If there are pictures of Athena, Hercules, and Vishnu or whatever then I’d say to keep the Viking Jew up there.

      • Patrick

        First, there is way more evidence that Jesus existed than Socrates. Its just that nobody really cares that much about whether Socrates actually existed. Plus, there is plenty in Socrates that would not be so highly appreciated anymore. Thus, it is actually a decent comparison. Moreover, if Jesus’s portrait is hanging beside a portrait of Socrates on a “wall of honor” that would indicate that the school is actually taking Jesus off the pedestal of “son of God” and holding him in honor merely as a good teacher/philosopher/thinker. Or that Socrates should be worshiped along with Jesus, but that seems significantly less likely.

        So I ask again, if the portrait of Jesus were hanging on a “wall of honor” beside portraits of someone like Socrates, George Washington, a past principle, a few decent students, and President Obama, could it really be said that the school is trying to establish Christianity as a religion? The primary reason I would say “no” is because I think many/most Christians would find the representation of Jesus in such a manner actually disgraceful and belittling Jesus as the “son of God.” Thus how is the act establishing Christianity if it is something that Christians are opposed to in the first place?

        • sqlrob

          Given that there’s zero evidence of Jesus existing, [citation needed]

          • Patrick

            Go ahead and try to prove that Socrates existed. Good luck.

          • sqlrob

            You present the evidence for Jesus first.

          • sqlrob

            Let me rephrase it this way. For the sake of argument, I’ll accept that there’s no evidence for Socrates. Now, you’re saying there’s more than zero for Jesus. Since you’re making the positive claim, you’ve got to put up the data (in less polite terms, put up or shut up)

          • Patrick

            Seriously dude? Why are you so intent on taking this off point? I get that you think there is no good evidence for the historical existence of Jesus. Wow, big deal. The question is about whether context changes the outcome in a vase regarding the establishment clause and a portrait of Jesus.

          • sqlrob

            You’re the one that brought that comparison in.
            Put up or shut up.

  • Steve

    So they violated their settlement agreement?

    • Sunny Day

      Sometimes you gotta read the article. :)
      “Back in 2006, the Harrison County board settled a lawsuit filed by Americans United and the West Virginia ACLU over the same “Head of Christ” portrait that had been in a public high school there for more than 30 years. “

      • Steve

        It also says “the board did agree not to display religious material in schools.” Somehow that doesn’t seem to have included the painting itself. What a weird agreement.

        • Randomfactor

          Different school district in a different state, guys.

  • Keith

    It is easy to miss the detail, but the school that settled is located in West Virginia. The school that refuses to take down the picture is in Ohio. I missed it when i first read the excerpt.

  • Ma Nonny

    Lol. You know how I posted on the previous thread about how this Ohio case sounded familiar because it also happened in my high school? I do believe you just dug up the exact case to which I was referring…