November 2006 Church & State | People & Events

Officials at a West Virginia high school have agreed to settle a lawsuit challenging the display of a portrait of Jesus in a school hallway.

The Harrison County School Board voted 4-1 Oct. 6 to settle the legal action, brought on behalf of local residents by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of West Virginia. School officials agreed not to post the picture of Jesus or any other devotional art at Bridgeport High School.

The dispute centered on the long-time display of artist Warner Sallman’s famous “Head of Christ” at Bridgeport High. The artwork had been on view at the school for more than 30 years. Students, parents and teachers had occasionally asked that it be removed, to no avail.

Americans United and the ACLU brought the lawsuit earlier this year after school officials again rebuffed requests from parents, teachers and students to remove the portrait. The civil liberties groups argued that public schools should not promote one religion over others. The lawsuit cited federal court precedent that found unconstitutional similar religious displays in public high schools.

The legal action came on behalf of Harold Sklar, a local parent, and Jacque­line McKenzie, a substitute teacher.

“We commend the school board for ensuring that all Bridgeport students will feel welcome at their school, regardless of their religious background,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This settlement sends a message to public school officials all across the country that they should respect the diversity of their students and not take sides on religious matters.”

The Sklar v. Harrison County Board of Education lawsuit took an unusual turn in August when someone broke into the school and stole the portrait. Security cameras captured a vague image of the perpetrator, but no one has been apprehended yet.

After the theft, attorneys with AU and the ACLU approached the board and offered to settle the case. Under the terms of the settlement, the school system has agreed not to allow a display of “Head of Christ” or unconstitutional displays of “any pictures, paintings, posters, prints, statues, carvings, or other items with religious content” at Bridgeport High School.

The settlement points out that academic discussion about religion is permitted.

“This is a victory for the children of Bridgeport,” said Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee. “We have avoided a lengthy and expensive lawsuit that would have been detrimental to the community and school system. This means that school funds can be put toward education, not litigation.”

Board member Mike Queen was the sole dissenter. Queen accused Americans United and the ACLU of picking on the Bridgeport district and spearheaded efforts to raise money for the school system’s legal defense. After the vote, he told the Charleston Gazette that the settlement is “an opportunity to fight another day.”

Queen and other portrait backers had lined up the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Religious Right legal group, to defend the district. But AU attorneys pointed out that the case was a guaranteed loser in court.