ACLU sues to force removal of Ohio middle school’s 65-year-old Jesus portrait

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Two advocacy groups have gone to court to force the removal of a large portrait of Jesus Christ which has hung inside a rural southern Ohio middle school since 1947.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed the lawsuit on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Columbus, reports the Columbus Dispatch.

The suit claims that the portrait hanging in Jackson Middle School violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by endorsing Christianity.

“The maintenance and display of the portrait has the effect of advancing and endorsing one religion, improperly entangling the State in religious affairs, and violating the personal consciences of plaintiffs,” the lawsuit claims, according to Fox News.

There are three plaintiffs in the suit. One plaintiff is a student at the middle school; the other two are parents of children at the school. The plaintiffs are reportedly only identified as “Sam Doe.”

“The school system was warned weeks ago that this religious display is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and must be removed,” James Hardiman, the legal director of ACLU Ohio, told the Dispatch.

That warning came in the form of a Jan. 2 letter, The Daily Caller reported at the time. (RELATED: Group demands removal of Jesus portrait from school)

“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 Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, according to WKKJ-FM.

Markert called the placement of the image inside the school “an egregious violation of the First Amendment” and demanded that officials “remove the picture at once.”

Last month, in front of a crowd of some 300 pro-religious supporters, the Jackson Board of Education publicly resolved to rebuff Markert’s stern missive, the Dispatch reports.

Superintendent Phil Howard noted that a student group, the Hi-Y Club, had presented the portrait as a gift during the Truman administration, and he asserted that it now has historical significance.

“A lot of things are permissible so long as they are student-led or student-initiated,” Howard said last month. “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.”

In a statement this week, the superintendent said he was “shocked and surprised” at the lawsuit.

The Liberty Institute, another advocacy group, is advising the school district on its response strategy.

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Eric Owens