(Photo: WBNS-10TV Video)
A portrait of Jesus Christ that hung in an Ohio school district's schools for more than six and a half decades has been taken down after potential legal costs associated with a federal lawsuit became too great of a concern for district officials.
"The court is not ruling today. Our insurance company denied coverage and we cannot risk taxpayer money at this time," a statement from the Jackson City School District, which was provided to The Christian Post by the Liberty Institute, reads. "We are ordering the Hi-Y Club to take down the portrait to avoid the court ordering us to do so. We understand that may lead to a lawsuit from the Hi-Y Club but we had little choice in the matter."
In February the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the school district over the image of Jesus, which at the time had been hanging near the entrance of Jackson Middle School since 1947. The portrait is owned by the Hi-Y Club, a community service-focused organization that promotes Christian values.
Earlier this year the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based organization that helped Jackson City Schools with the case, investigated the portrait's history and said in its final report that the image could stay legally.
The organization found that, because the portrait is owned by Hi-Y and not the school, it is considered "private speech" and is therefore legal to display. By virtue of allowing it to hang in the school for so long, the group said the district had created a "limited public forum for student groups to hang portraits of inspirational figures," even though Hi-Y had been the only student organization to take advantage of the forum at the time.
Still, a complaint against the school district was filed by FFRF and the ACLU of Ohio in February on behalf of a middle school student and two parents whose children attend school in the district.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that displaying the picture of Christ in the school has "the effect of advancing or endorsing one particular religion or religion in general," and as such is a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause.
"We've argued throughout the process that we've felt that the portrait hanging was unconstitutional, so obviously we feel that taking the portrait down was the right decision," ACLU of Ohio spokesperson Nick Worner told CP on Wednesday. "It remains to be seen what the school will do now, but in terms of the portrait coming down we feel that that's the right decision."
The case is still open, Worner says, and the school district now has several legal options, though the ACLU's next move depends on how officials for Jackson City Schools choose to proceed.