FFRF, ACLU sue over Ohio Jesus portrait

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 6 on behalf of local plaintiffs to remove a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School in Jackson. The Ohio community of 6,300 residents boasts 41 churches.

Immediately after the suit was filed, threats were posted on social media, one suggesting the plaintiffs ought to be shot, another that they ought to be beheaded. This evidence was brought to the attention of U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley, a Clinton appointee. The judge acted swiftly, granting a motion for pseudonyms and protective order on Feb. 12.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent an initial letter on behalf of a local complainant on Jan. 2 to Jackson City School District Superintendent Phil Howard. The superintendent stated publicly that “it would take a court order to remove the picture.” Howard has since been named a defendant, as are the Jackson City Board of Education and the school district.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of a child who attends Jackson Middle School, and the parents of children who attend school in the district. The children already visit the school for the annual Christmas concert, and will eventually be enrolled at the middle school.

The portrait of Jesus Christ is prominently displayed high up on an entrance wall at the school, where it has been reportedly located since 1947. 

Dan Barker, FFRF co-president and a former evangelical minister, is very familiar with the devotional painting, “The Head of Christ,” having encountered it in countless Christian churches. “It should not require a court order to persuade a public school district to remove a devotional painting of Jesus — identical to millions hanging in churches and Sunday school classrooms around the country — from the entrance of a middle school.”

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (where the suit was filed) has previously ruled unconstitutional the display of this same painting in a Michi-gan public school.

A motion was filed with the legal complaint to maintain plaintiffs’ anonymity, along with a protective motion barring disclosure of their personal information so that they aren’t subject to potential adverse consequences, including harassment and personal threats. To read the memorandum for protective order chronicling some of the alarming history of harassment of Establishment Clause plaintiffs, turn to the center spread on pages 12-13. 

Displaying the portrait violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the 14th Amendment and Article I, Section 7 of the Ohio Constitution, the suit alleges. The defendants’ actions “have no legitimate secular purpose, and are motivated by a desire to advance a religious purpose.”

Plaintiffs seek removal of the portrait and a permanent injunction barring “any substantially similar display.”

FFRF’s Markert and ACLU of Ohio attorneys James L. Hardiman, Jennifer Martinez Atzberger and Michael Honohan are representing the plaintiffs.

Read legal complaint and documents at: ffrf.org/legal/challenges/ongoing-lawsuits

Freedom From Religion Foundation