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Freethought Today · November 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Off with their ‘Head of Christ’

FFRF, ACLU settle Jesus portrait case

The Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio have settled a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District in Jackson, Ohio, with the district agreeing not to continue to display a portrait of Jesus.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a Jan. 2 letter of complaint on behalf of parents with students at the school, provoking Superintendent Phil Howard to publicly vow that the “Head of Christ” painting would only be removed by court order.

That order came in October in the form of a consent decree mandating that the portrait be permanently removed from school property. Parties agreed to a financial settlement requiring the school to pay the plaintiffs a combination of damages and legal fees totaling $95,000. FFRF’s share of the legal fees was $7,500.

“We’re pleased that the plaintiffs — parents and students — whose identities will be protected, will each receive $3,000 in claims and damages,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s just and appropriate that students and parents who risk public exposure amid threats of retaliation for speaking up for the First Amendment should receive damages and that public school officials who violate the First Amendment be held accountable.”

The portrait was posted prominently in Jackson Middle School but was later moved to the high school after the ACLU and FFRF filed the lawsuit. The school tried to argue that the portrait was part of a “limited public forum,” but eventually agreed in court to remove it from the school, reportedly to avoid “risking taxpayer money.”

The school district worked with an upstart Texas Religious Right group, the Liberty Institute, that proclaims at its website: “We have never lost a case to the ACLU, [or] Freedom From Religion Foundation.” (This was FFRF’s first case in which the Liberty Institute had interceded.)

Negotiations were stalled when it was discovered that the portrait had never actually been removed from the school. It had been moved to an art closet and was “resurrected” for a prayer meeting on the school lawn, which was attended by school faculty and administrators on the National Day of Prayer last May.

This violation of the court agreement prompted another round of legal filings by both sides, delaying the settlement and increasing legal fees, all of which, as the ACLU of Ohio pointed out, was unnecessary. FFRF received a small portion of the legal fees payment.

The case was before Judge Algenon L. Marbley, U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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