A portrait of Jesus above the entrance to an Ohio public school doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently asked that the print be removed from Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio, because it represents an unconstitutional government promotion of Christianity.
There really is no debate about the nature of the work in question. The portrait is a copy of Warner Sallman’s 1941 painting “Head of Christ,” a widely recognized piece of devotional art. (The official website for Sallman’s works says there were more than 500 million copies of it in existence as of 1994.)
But the Associated Press reported that District Superintendent Phil Howard told 300 people gathered for a school board meeting yesterday that he won’t be removing the picture because of its historical significance. It’s apparently been on display since 1947.
That argument doesn’t quite hold up. Whether the portrait has been up for two minutes or 200 years, its permanent display in a public school is blatantly unconstitutional. Just ask the Harrison County School Board in West Virginia.
Back in 2006, the Harrison County board settled a lawsuit filed by Americans United and the West Virginia ACLU over the same “Head of Christ” portrait that had been in a public high school there for more than 30 years. Although there was a bit of a twist in that case – the portrait was stolen before the settlement – the board did agree not to display religious material in schools.
More than likely, the Harrison County board figured out that it was going to lose that case, and a settlement was the only sensible option. Howard and his colleagues would be wise to learn from Harrison County because they are headed for expensive and wasteful litigation.
The bottom line is that trying to keep the “Head of Christ” in its current place is a losing battle that simply is not worth fighting. No matter how long the portrait has been on display and no matter how many people want it there, the U.S. Constitution mandates a separation of religion and government.
That means devotional pictures of Jesus don’t belong in public schools.