Sklar v. Board of Education of Harrison County

Last modified 2011.09.15

  • Status Closed
  • Type Counsel
  • Court U.S. District Court
  • Issues Public Schools, Religious Displays, Religious Minorities

For more than a decade, Harold Sklar, the father of students in the Bridgeport schools, formally petitioned the Harrison County Board of Education to remove a devotional painting of Jesus that hangs outside the school principal’s office. For roughly the same period, Jacqueline McKenzie, a substitute teacher in Harrison County and mother of Bridgeport High School graduates, also asked to have the portrait removed. The Board ignored their requests, just as it had repeatedly ignored other parents’ and students’ protests over the years. The painting, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” hung in various parts of the school for the last three decades.

AU worked with the ACLU Foundation of West Virginia to get the picture removed, first sending letters to the school board threatening litigation if the portrait remained in place. On June 6, 2006, the board declined to approve the portrait’s removal, ignoring both the advice of its own lawyer and the clear precedent established by a 1993 federal case in Michigan involving the same painting in a public school.

So on June 28, 2006, we filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia on behalf of Sklar and McKenzie, seeking an injunction requiring the District to remove the painting. The Board voted on August 15, 2006, to retain the Jesus-portrait display, after the Alliance Defense Fund offered to represent the District pro bono and a board member collected $150,000, through what he called the Christian Freedom Fund, to pay for the defense. A few days later, a masked man broke into the school and stole the Jesus portrait.

Because the Board made it clear that it would replace the portrait, the suit continued. But in October 2006, facing mounting attorneys’ fees and pressure from the community (which was beginning to tire of the religious division), the District finally agreed not to put the portrait back up.

Under the settlement order, the District is barred from ever again hanging the Head of Christ painting in Bridgeport High School. The order also underscores that any future displays containing religious content must be erected only for constitutionally permissible purposes and in accordance with the requirements of the Establishment Clause. In return for the settlement, we waived our attorneys’ fees. But if the District violates the court order, it could be required to pay those fees and more, as the case would be re-opened and litigation against the District would continue.

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