- (Photo: Brad Sherman-The Telegram-Jackson, Ohio)
A school district in Ohio has reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union to keep a portrait of Jesus Christ off school property and pay a $95,000 fine.
Jackson City School District agreed to the settlement Friday in response to legal action being pushed by the ACLU and the Wisconsin-based group the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
James Hardiman, legal director for the Ohio chapter of the ACLU, said in a statement that he believed the legal action should not have been needed.
"This case could have ended before it began if the school had simply acknowledged that it is not the government's place to endorse one specific religion in a public school that children are legally required to attend," said Hardiman.
In January, the Jackson City School District received a letter from the Madison, Wis.-based FFRF regarding a portrait of Jesus that had hung in the local high school since 1947.
Part of a "Hall of Honor" display meant to commemorate famous historical figures, the portrait was donated by the Hi-Y Club, which is connected to the Young Men's Christian Association.
Initially, the district was opposed to removing the portrait, as Jackson Superintendent Phil Howard explained to local media.
"We're not violating the law and the picture is legal because it has historical significance. It hasn't hurt anyone," said Howard to WKKJ.
"I'm certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wis., who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down."
By February, the district found itself in court as the ACLU and FFRF sued the school system over the presence of the portrait at the high school.
Brought before the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Ohio, the suit argued that "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."
"As a direct result of these unconstitutional actions, Plaintiffs and other likeminded citizens and residents have suffered, and will continue to suffer permanent, severe and irreparable harm and injury," continued the suit.
For the suit, the Jackson City School District was represented by the Texas-based conservative law firm The Liberty Institute.
By April, the portrait had been removed from the school and in July both parties announced that they had reached a tentative agreement pending a final settlement.
Superintendent Howard explained in a statement that he agreed to the settlement due to the mounting costs of legally defending the portrait, according to The Associated Press.
"Our attorneys felt like this was the best case scenario for the district because the legal fees were mounting by the day. The settlement did not cost the district or taxpayers any money because it was paid for by the district insurance company," said Howard.
"According to our legal counsel it made more sense under the circumstance to resolve the matter because further litigation could have exposed the district to a much larger claim by the ACLU for their legal fees."