FFRF’s ‘Jackson Jesus’ protest makes waves in Ohio

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s formal request that a middle school in Jackson, Ohio, remove a prominent painting of Jesus from its entrance has created shockwaves locally.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint Jan. 2 to the Jackson City Schools on behalf of a complainant protesting the painting’s presence at Jackson Middle School. Since sending the letter, FFRF has been contacted by other families with children in the schools distressed over the violation.

“Courts have continually held that public schools may not display religious messages or iconography. It is illegal for Jackson Middle School to post religious images on the walls of its schools. The district must remove the picture of Jesus at once,” Markert wrote. 

Her letter cited a 1994 decision by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled that an identical portrait of Jesus could not be displayed in a public school. Ohio is part of the 6th Circuit.

The Jackson School Board decided Jan. 8 to not remove the devotional image. Superintendent Phil Howard told more than 300 emotional backers of the painting who attended a board meeting that the picture would stay. He claimed it was lawful because it was a gift from a student group and “has historical significance.”

Channel 10 News reported on the “tense” and heated meeting, with parents booing those who opposed the painting’s presence, and cheering and applauding the board’s decision.

“It is still violating the United States Constitution and must be removed immediately,” said a parent, who was loudly booed.

Since FFRF wrote its letter, the ACLU of Ohio has joined the fight. ACLU litigation coordinator Drew Dennis said: “The fact that this portrait has been hanging for many years does not change the fact that it promotes one set of religious beliefs at the expense of all others. Public school displays that advance one particular religious tradition are neither welcoming, nor inclusive for those who may have other beliefs.”

The “Jackson Jesus” painting is the focal point, segregated by itself, of a so-called “Hall of Honor” at the school. It reportedly was given to the school in 1947.

“I’m certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wis., who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down,” Howard told WKKJ.

A Christian-right group based in Texas known as the Liberty Institute announced Jan. 11 that it had been “retained” by Jackson City Schools as legal counsel. A Facebook group was started to support the school board’s position, garnering more than 11,000 “likes” by Jan. 7.

Joe Hensler, who started the Facebook page, dubbed himself president of Citizens of Jackson County for Jesus. “And it’s good to see that there are still people in our community that are willing to stand up and speak out for Christ,” he told a reporter.

The devotional painting in question, formally titled “Head of Christ,” was painted by Warner Sallman in 1941. According to the Sallman official website, the painting has been reproduced more than 500 million times. The Gospel Trumpet County, later Warner Press, became the principal distributor of the painting and other Sallman images.

Sallman also painted popular images titled “Christ at Heart’s Door,” “Christ in Gethsemane” and “The Lord is My Shepherd.” He enrolled in bible school and was encouraged to paint by a dean who said, “Sometime I hope you give us your conception of Christ. And I hope it’s a manly one. Most of our pictures today are too effeminate.”

Sallman said about his work, “I give God the glory for whatever has been accomplished by my efforts to bring joy and happinss to people throughout the world.” 

Dan Barker, FFRF co-president and a former evangelical minister, is familiar with the painting, having encountered it himself in countless Christian churches. “It boggles the mind that in 2013, a public school superintendent and school board would not understand that a devotional painting of Jesus, called ‘The Head of Christ,’ — identical to millions hanging in churches and Sunday school classrooms around the country — may not be part of a ‘Hall of Honor’ or be posted at the entrance of a middle school.”

(Further developments in what will be an ongoing story will be reported in the March Freethought Today.)

Freedom From Religion Foundation