Ohio town latest focus of religion legal debate


JACKSON, Ohio (AP) — Since just after World War II, a portrait of Jesus has hung in a Jackson City Schools building, attracting little discussion and no controversy that anyone seems to recall.

But that changed recently after a complaint, and this small city in mostly rural Appalachian Ohio has now found itself as the latest battleground in a national debate over what displays of religion are constitutional.

Facing a federal lawsuit charging that the middle school portrait illegally promotes religion in a public school, school officials dug in their heels Tuesday night at a board meeting. They declared that the portrait belongs to the Christian-based student club that presented it in 1947 and is part of a "limited public forum" in which other student groups can hang portraits of "inspirational figures central to the club's meaning and purpose." Taking it down would censor students' private speech, it said.

"It's a delicate balance for us as a district," Superintendent Phil Howard said, adding that he thought the board's action protected students' rights while making clear it wasn't endorsing a religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which joined Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation in suing last week in U.S. District Court, isn't likely to buy the board's reasoning.

"It appears they have assembled a number of pieces and parts from previously unsuccessful arguments (in other cases) and attempted to turn them into something new," ACLU spokesman Nick Worner said Wednesday.

The case has brought an unaccustomed spotlight to the city of some 7,000 people, better known for its annual Apple Festival and the Ironmen prep footballers, who play in a 6,000-seat stadium. Like much of the region, its unemployment runs higher — 8.3 percent in the latest figures — than statewide rates, but two frozen-food makers in the area each employ more than 1,000, and the downtown area has been spruced up with brick sidewalks and period lighting.

"I'm surprised, I guess," Diana Lewis, a middle school teacher and Jackson High graduate, said of the controversy that brought a phalanx of TV cameras inside the elementary gymnasium for Tuesday's board meeting. "It was just always there. It's never really been used as a big topic."

Some longtime residents say they'd rather the town be left alone.

"I don't think these outside groups should be involved," said Clarence Rice, 82. "It's none of their business. It's been there 65 years."

He remembers when the portrait was put up, in what was then the high school, by the Hi-Y Club in 1947. That's the year his brother Frank, a club member, died of leukemia.

The "Head of Christ" portrait, a popular depiction of Jesus, hangs near a school entranceway. It's the dominant image in the district's "Hall of Honor," which has nearly four dozen photos of past school leaders and other prominent Jackson County natives including the late four-time Gov. James A. Rhodes.

Howard, superintendent for six years, said he hadn't heard much about the portrait, and certainly nothing negative, until the Jan. 2 letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation saying it had received a complaint. It's been active in challenging school religious displays, such as a southeast Texas high school's cheerleader banners carrying biblical verses and two Pennsylvania schools with Ten Commandments monuments.

The ACLU has had a series of similar cases in recent years, including a long-running lawsuit against schools in nearby Adams County over a Ten Commandments display that courts ruled was primarily religious.

But some rulings, including by the Supreme Court, have upheld displays if they didn't promote one religious sect over another and if their main purpose was nonreligious.

"These cases are cropping up now, I think, because there's an increased sensitivity to religious displays because the American public is more religiously diverse than it used to be," said Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law expert at University of Pennsylvania Law School. "So practices that used to go unchallenged, and largely unnoticed ... are now more likely to be considered divisive."

At a Jackson board meeting last month, some in a hundreds-strong crowd booed anyone questioning the Jesus portrait. Attorneys for the lawsuit plaintiffs — a middle-school student and two parents identified only as Sam Does — say social media comments have been threatening, with calls for those opposed to the portrait to leave town.

Bob Eisnaugle, an art teacher and Hi-Y Club adviser, said he didn't like seeing some of the angry reactions at the earlier meeting. But he also supports keeping the portrait up.

"The majority of people want it to stay," he said. "And we still live in a democracy."


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