A church-state separation kerfuffle has erupted over a portrait of Jesus Christ that has hung inside a southern Ohio middle school since 1947 when a student group, the Hi-Y Club, presented it as a gift.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit based in Madison, Wisc., is pressuring Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio to remove the image.
In a Jan. 2 letter, the watchdog organization warned local school district officials that the display of the portrait in a public school setting is unconstitutional, the Mansfield News Journal reported.
“If a large portrait of Jesus were to hang in Jackson Middle School, an objective observer would have no doubt that it had the district’s stamp of approval,” wrote Rebecca Markert, a staff attorney for the liberal organization, according to WKKJ-FM.
According to Markert’s stern letter, the anti-religion group learned from an unnamed source alleging that the portrait is located near an entrance to the school.
Markert called the placement of the image inside the school “an egregious violation of the First Amendment.” She demanded that officials “remove the picture at once.” She also sought a prompt report of the district’s progress “in writing.”
Markert cited rulings by the United States Supreme and lower federal courts in which displays of religious iconography were found to violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Jackson City Schools Superintendent Phil Howard told WKKJ radio in Chillicothe, Ohio that he doesn’t plan on backing down.
“I’m certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wisconsin, who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down,” he said.
“A lot of things are permissible so long as they are student-led or student-initiated,” Howard added.
He believes the Jesus portrait is permissible under the Establishment Clause because it originated as a gift from a student group, and because it’s one of many images in a larger collection featuring illustrious alumni and other famous people.
“It actually hangs there amongst many other pictures,” Howard told WKKJ. “It’s in the middle of what we call our ‘Hall of Honor.'”