Rural Ohio school district surrenders to ACLU over Jesus portrait

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The controversial portrait of Jesus Christ at the center of a federal lawsuit pitting the American Civil Liberties Union against a rural southern Ohio school district was taken down on Wednesday.

The portrait had hung in the entryway of Jackson Middle School since the Truman administration.

For a few months, school officials had said they would fight the Establishment Clause-based lawsuit filed by the ACLU along with the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation on behalf of an unnamed student and two unnamed parents. (RELATED: ACLU sues to force removal of Ohio middle school’s 65-year-old Jesus portrait)

However, Columbus-area ABC affiliate reports that Phil Howard, Jackson Board of Education superintendent, decided to capitulate after the district’s insurance company refused to pay costs associated with defending the lawsuit.

“At the end of the day, we just couldn’t roll the dice with taxpayer money,” Howard said, according to Fox News. “When you get into these kinds of legal battles, you’re not talking about money you can raise with bake sales and car washes. It’s not fair to take those resources from our kids’ education.”

Howard’s stance has changed since the Freedom from Religion Foundation first threatened a lawsuit. (RELATED: Anti-religion group demands removal of Jesus portrait from Ohio middle school)

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

The portrait was presented to the school by the Hi-Y Club — a Christian-affiliated student club.

The superintendent said he asked the Hi-Y Club to remove the offending portrait.

An ACLU representative said the group will not pursue the lawsuit as long as the portrait does not hang in a Jackson public school.

The Washington Times notes that Hiram Sasser, a Liberty Institute attorney who has been advising the school, said the Hi-Y Club could now choose to sue the school district on the theory that its First Amendment rights have now been violated.

School officials and the Hi-Y Club had previously worked out a compromise wherein the artwork was moved to the nearby high school. The school district has maintained that the artwork belongs to the Hi-Y Club. (RELATED: Rural Ohio school district moves decades-old Jesus portrait; ACLU not impressed)

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Eric Owens