The dispute over Jesus & Co. hanging in a Slidell, La., courthouse ended last week with a mostly favorable ruling by U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle.
It all started in early July, when City Court Judge Jim Lamz publicly refused to remove a 16th century Russian Orthodox painting called "Christ the Savior" and its accompanying message, "To know peace, obey these laws" from the courthouse foyer.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued, arguing that the stand-alone religious display violated the separation of church and state. No doubt following the advice of their lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund, Tammany Parish officials altered the display just days before the first hearing date.
The new display included Hammurabi, Moses, Confucius, Muhammad (I wonder if the ADF considered how serious an offense many Muslims consider depicting the Prophet?), King John of England, John Marshall and Napoleon Bonaparte, among others.
I argued in a September blog that "a few more portraits doth not a secular display make," but Judge Lemelle disagreed. He said the additional portraits remedied the original display's unconstitutionality.
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Judge Lemelle again acknowledged the original display was unconstitutional and awarded "nominal" damages, attorney fees and court costs to the ACLU on Wednesday.
OK, it's something. But I think the display should be dismantled because the case is similar to McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down altered religious displays in two Kentucky courthouses because the government intended to endorse religion from the get-go. Refashioning the displays by adding secular and other religious documents, the high court ruled in 2005, did not negate the First Amendment violation.
I don't buy ADF attorney Mike Johnson's argument that the Jesus portrait's purpose in the courthouse was to "use art to emphasize the importance of following the law in order to have a peaceful society." The additional portraits, Johnson added last September, would "reassure courthouse users or visitors that this is and always has been the legitimate purpose of the display."
Yeah, right. I think St. Tammany Parish officials erected Jesus & Co. just so Jesus could stay.