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UPDATE: Settlement Permanently Removes Jesus Portrait

By: WSAZ News Staff Email
By: WSAZ News Staff Email
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UPDATE 10/4/13 @ 3 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) says they have settled a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District over the continued display of a portrait of Jesus Christ on school property.

According to a press release from the groups, the agreement includes a consent decree mandating that the portrait be permanently removed from school property, as well as a financial settlement requiring the school district to pay the plaintiffs a combination of damages and legal fees totaling nearly six figures.

The Jesus portrait has hung Jackson Middle School since 1937. It was donated to the school by a student group.

Earlier this year the ACLU and FFRF filed a lawsuit against the district.

According to the press release, the school attempted 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 two sides then began negotiating a formal settlement, but those talks stalled when it was discovered that the portrait had never actually been removed from the school. Instead, it was moved to an art closet, and then brought out for a prayer meeting on the school lawn which was attended by school faculty and administrators.

This violation of the court agreement prompted another round of legal filings by both sides, delaying the settlement and increasing legal fee, according to the groups.

“Throughout this case, school administrators were advised that this religious display was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and that their repeated failure to remove the portrait would be costly.” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman. “It is unfortunate that they made this outcome inevitable.”

Superintendent Phil Howard issued the flowing statement on the settlement.

“The agreement was reached upon the advice of counsel prior to another court date to respond to a contempt charge against the district because of the use of the portrait during the celebration of the National Day of Prayer. Our attorneys felt like this was the best case scenario for the district because the legal fees were mounting by the day. The settlement did not cost the district or taxpayers any money because it was paid for by the district insurance company. According to our legal counsel it made more sense under the circumstance to resolve the matter because further litigation could have exposed the district to a much larger claim by the ACLU for their legal fees.”
In July, a U.S. District Court Judge ordered the two sides to submit the settlement within 90 days



UPDATE 7/12/13 @ 5 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (AP) -- A tentative settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit challenging the display of a portrait of Jesus that had been in a southern Ohio school for decades.

The Associated Press reports a U.S. district judge ordered the two sides to submit the settlement within 90 days. No details were disclosed.

American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Nick Worner says the group is pleased there is a tentative agreement. He says its primary concern is that the portrait come down and stay down.

An attorney for Jackson City Schools declined to comment.

The school had taken the portrait down in April, but court filings say it returned on the school lawn for a prayer meeting and was visible to those entering an art-storage area.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 4/3/13 @ 8:20 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- A portrait of Jesus that has hung in two different Jackson City School buildings since 1947 has been taken down, because of concerns about the costs of a federal lawsuit.

Earlier this week, the group asking for the portrait to be removed also asked the judge that the defendants, the school district, pay the legal fees.

It was not a financial gamble the district was wiling or able to take.

Jackson Schools Superintendent Phil Howard explained this could be a huge burden on a district that has worked hard to keep a balanced budget.

"We are not talking about small amounts here; we are talking about six figures and up," Howard explained.

Howard said they've worked to save taxpayer dollars by cutting nearly 23 teaching positions, and they are down an administrator. One is currently working at the middle school and the high school.

"We cannot risk mortgaging the assets of the district, at this point, to continue the fight with this," Howard said.

Bob Eisnaugle, the advisor for the Hi-Y Club, who is the responsible group for the portrait, said he and two members of the Christian Service Organization took the portrait down Wednesday morning. He described it as "disappointing," but adds he was not surprised.

Eisnaugle is still waiting to hear from his group’s attorney as to whether or not they will file suit against the Jackson City Schools.

The attorney for Hi-Y is working pro bono.

Eisnaugle, who is also an art teacher at the high school, says he understands the money the district has is there to educate the students. He said he doesn't fault school leaders for the actions considering the situation.



UPDATE 4/3/13 @ 11:25 a.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ/AP) -- A portrait of Jesus that has hung in two different Jackson City School buildings since 1947 has been taken down, because of concerns about the costs of a federal lawsuit.

The superintendent says that some members of the Hi-Y student club that owns the portrait, at the direction of the group's adviser, took it down Wednesday morning.

Superintendent Phil Howard said the decision to remove the portrait from the high school came after the district learned its insurance company would deny coverage if the district lost the lawsuit brought by several parents and students.

Howard added the district cannot risk taxpayer money at this time.

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit calling for the portrait to be removed from Jackson Middle School because it was an unconstitutional promotion of religion in a public school.

Last month, the portrait was moved to Jackson High School at the request of the student-run Hi-Y Club which donated it 65 years ago. The rationale being: the middle school building is actually the old high school building.

A hearing requesting an injunction to have the portrait removed was held Tuesday in federal court in Columbus.

The Jackson City School District voluntarily agreed to remove the portrait during the hearing.

Howard also says the decision to remove the portrait could lead to a lawsuit from the Hi-Y, but the district had little choice in the matter.

An ACLU spokesman says the lawsuit remains in effect, but will be dropped if the portrait stays down.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 4/2/13 @ 6:30 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ/AP) -- A portrait of Jesus will no longer be on display at Jackson High School.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation said late Tuesday afternoon the Jackson City School District agreed to remove the painting from the school.

That decision came during a federal court hearing over a restraining order filed by the group and the ACLU.

Superintendent Phil Howard said the decision to remove the portrait from a school hallway came because the district could end up paying significant legal fees and costs if it lost the lawsuit brought by two parents and a student.

Back in February, the groups filed a federal lawsuit asking that the portrait be taken down from Jackson Middle School.

Then, last month, the portrait was suddenly moved to the High School at the request of the student-run Hi-Y club which donated it 65 years ago. The rationale being: the Middle School building is actually the old high school building.

The civil rights groups say it doesn't matter where the portrait hangs; the fact it is in any public school is the real issue.



UPDATE 4/1/13 @ 9:45 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ/AP) -- Two groups suing Jackson City Schools over a portrait of Jesus, now want the portrait removed from the wall of a high school where it was moved last month.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in February charging the portrait displayed in the Jackson Middle School unconstitutionally promotes religion at a public school.

They amended their complaint Monday, asking the court to also prohibit the portrait from being displayed at Jackson High School for the same reasons.

Last month, the portrait was moved next to a trophy case at the high school at the request of the Hi-Y club, which put it up in 1947 in a building that is now the middle school.

School officials say taking the portrait down would censor students' private speech.

The complaint about the portrait has left the district in the midst of an ongoing national debate over what displays of religion are constitutional.

"We have to respect the rights of the club," Howard said after the portrait was moved. "Failure to do so might open the district to even another lawsuit, this time by the Hi-Y club," or violate the U.S Constitution by "turning the portrait into government speech."

The school board voted in February to keep the portrait up while allowing other student groups to hang portraits related to their focuses. Howard said that the board policy created a limited public forum at the middle school and the high school for student groups to be able to display portraits.

Howard said then that the club has the right to hang it in either school.

The amended lawsuit filed in federal court in Columbus says the moving of the portrait to the high school and creation of the "limited public forum" policy is "nothing more than a contrived pretext to conceal" school officials' continued involvement with the maintenance and display of the portrait.

ACLU of Ohio spokesman Nick Worner said last month after the portrait was moved that the group's position hadn't changed.

"It doesn't matter which public building the portrait is in," Worner said then. "It's an unconstitutional endorsement of religion on the part of a public school."

Worner did not immediately return calls to the ACLU's Cleveland headquarters on Monday.

School district offices were closed Monday night, and school officials did not immediately return a message seeking comment.



UPDATE 3/13/13 @ 8 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- The ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation have filed a lawsuit to have a portrait of Jesus Christ removed from Jackson Middle School.

The picture was taken down Wednesday, but where it was moved to likely won't satisfy those opposed to it.

The portrait was moved to a hall in Jackson High School Wednesday afternoon. Jesus' likeness now hangs along with those of Ironmen athlete state champions adjacent to the trophy case.

Bob Eisnaugle is an art teacher at Jackson, as well as the advisor for the Hi-Y club, which donated the portrait to the old school as a gift 65 years ago. That building now houses the middle school.

"It's been in the wrong place in the past," Eisnaugle said. "I think we've been up here five or six years. It should have been up here all this time."

Eisnaugle says they wanted it moved to the newer high school because with Hi-Y being a high school club, that is the logical place for it.

"It's very religious of course,” he said, “but our club is a Christian-based organization, so Jesus has always been a part of our club.”

"We have to respect the rights of the Hi-Y group,” Jackson City Schools Superintendent Phil Howard said of the move. “If we did not, we could potentially get another lawsuit from the Hi-Y group."

Howard says it’s unclear what this move could mean in the ongoing legal battle over the portrait.

The ACLU of Ohio did not return our calls Wednesday evening.



UPDATE 2/13/13 @ 6:15
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- If you want to know something about the past in Jackson, Ohio, everyone knows where to turn.

WSAZ.com set out Wednesday to learn the history of the picture of Christ that's caused so much controversy.

Everyone we asked said we needed to talk to one person:

“I've done four local history books,” Bob Ervin said. “And I've started a fifth one.”

Ervin was a student in Jackson City Schools when the controversial picture was first hung in 1947. The Liberty Institute used him as a source in their investigation.

“I was interviewed and mainly what I told them, I gave my theory, that it had been accepted locally and it didn't make the news,” Ervin said.

Interviews like Ervin's formed the foundation of the group's eight-page report unveiled at Tuesday night's board meeting. In it, attorneys argue that the picture is not government speech. Instead, it is the private free speech of the Hi-Y club.

“The Supreme Court has dealt with this multiple times and is very clear, when it's not government speech, it's private speech the government cannot discriminate against its religious viewpoints,” Liberty Institute Attorney Hiram Sasser said.

“Based upon the recommendations of our legal team, it's going to allow that particular picture to remain,” Superintendent Phil Howard said.

But the ACLU of Ohio says the battle is far from over.

“Our position, first of all, on the portrait has not changed,” spokesman Nick Worner said. “We believe that the portrait is government sponsorship of religion in a public school and that it needs to be removed.”

For Ervin, he's already looking at the situation from an historical perspective.

“It is something that brings people together for discussion and as long as people can discuss matters, I think this is good that they would be able to do that,” Ervin said.



UPDATE 2/12/13 @ 11:30 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- A portrait of Jesus hanging in Jackson Middle School for nearly 65 years will stay, according to a decision at a Jackson City School Board meeting Tuesday night.

The portrait has been the focus of considerable controversy, including a federal lawsuit to have it removed.

The Liberty Institute, which Jackson City Schools retained as legal counsel, said the portrait of Jesus represents private speech -- protected by the First Amendment -- because it belongs to a student group. They said it does not represent government speech.

"The Supreme Court's been pretty clear that when it's not government speech, it's private speech," Liberty Institute attorney Hiram Sasser said. "The Constitution protects that private speech. It does not allow the government to discriminate against it."

Liberty Institute attorneys say a precedent has already been set in a similar case fought and won by the ACLU. The hanging of the picture constitutes a "limited public forum," allow individuals or groups to express their right to free speech in a public setting.

School Board members voted 4 to 0 Tuesday to accept the Liberty Institute’s findings.

Last week, The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District, seeking the removal of the portrait.

"It just pleases me that so many people were supporting the board," Jackson High School graduate Dr. Frances Gibser said. "And we came here to support the board members and the people of Jackson since the school meant so much to us."

The Hi-Y Club, the student group that the Jesus portrait belongs to, has hired its own attorney and has indicated it will sue if anyone tries to remove the portrait.

That group and other student groups were encouraged Tuesday night to hang portraits of their choice.

Earlier this month, Superintendent Phil Howard told WSAZ.com that, based on his research, the school is not breaking any laws. He says the portrait has been part of the building’s history since 1937. The school board is also in support of the portrait remaining in the school.

Both the ACLU and Freedom from Religion originally had sent letters to the school board requesting the portrait be removed.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 2/12/13 @ 9:20 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- An Ohio school board continues to meet Tuesday night about how it will respond to a federal lawsuit seeking removal of a portrait of Jesus that hangs prominently in its middle school.

During the meeting, Liberty Institute says the portrait of Christ is not government speech. It is private speech because it belongs to a club. They say it is free speech and cannot be discriminated against.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 212/13 @ 2:57 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (AP) -- An Ohio school board is set to meet over how it will respond to a federal lawsuit seeking removal of a portrait of Jesus that hangs prominently in its middle school.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation say the large portrait unconstitutionally promotes religion. They filed a lawsuit last week in U.S. district court on behalf on an unidentified student and two parents.

The Jackson City Schools board will meet Tuesday evening in an elementary school gym.

Superintendent Phil Howard says the district was "shocked and surprised" at the suit. Attorneys for the district have been examining the matter.

The district says the portrait was donated by a student group and has been in the school since about 1947.



UPDATE 2/7/13 @ 1 p.m.
JACKSON COUNTY, Ohio (WSAZ) -- A lawsuit has officially been filed in connection with a controversial portrait hanging in a Jackson County school.

According to a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District, seeking the removal of a religious portrait currently on display in Jackson Middle School.

“The school system was warned weeks ago that this religious display is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and must be removed.” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman. “They have chosen to continue displaying the portrait, making legal action necessary.”

Superintendent Phil Howard told WSAZ.com that based on his research the school is not breaking any laws. He says the portrait has been part of the building's history since 1937. The school board is also in support of the portrait remaining in the school.

Jackson City Schools has retained Liberty Institute as its legal counsel on a pro-bono basis in their fight to keep the portrait inside of Jackson Middle School.

Both the ACLU and Freedom from Religion had sent letters to the school board requesting the portrait be removed.

“Separation of church and state is a bedrock constitutional principle and one of our nation’s oldest traditions,” said Hardiman. “The fact that this portrait has been on display for many years does not change the fact that the school system is violating the Constitution by inserting themselves in matters of religion.”

WSAZ.com is working to get a copy of the lawsuit.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest information.



Liberty Institute issued the following statement in response to a lawsuit filed in a federal court by the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation, regarding the removal of a longstanding Jesus portrait in the former high school located in Jackson, Ohio:

“This lawsuit is premature,” said Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute Director of Litigation. “We reached out to the ACLU and FFRF for dates they would be available to meet, so that we could include their input in the investigation before we made a final report and recommendation to the Board. Rather than responding to our request to meet with them, the ACLU and FFRF filed a lawsuit before they even knew what action the Board intended to take.”

Sasser continued, “These types of issues require extensive factual investigation, which we are just now completing. The District needs to do a thorough investigation in order to ensure that its decision on this issue follows Supreme Court precedent.”



UPDATE 1/14/13
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- Jackson City Schools are getting help from a national group of constitutional attorneys in their fight to keep a portrait of Jesus hanging in Jackson Middle School.

In recent weeks, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have sent letters to school district demanding the portrait be taken down. The groups say displaying the portrait is unconstitutional.

The demands have sparked outrage from many in the community.

Superintendent Phil Howard says based on his research the school is not breaking any laws. He says the portrait was donated by a student group in 1937 and is part of the building’s history.

During last Tuesday’s school board meeting, the board fully supported Howard’s decision to leave the portrait in its place.

On Friday, the Liberty Institute announced that Jackson City Schools retained the organization as its legal counsel on a pro-bono basis in their fight to keep the portrait.

According to a news release, over the next few months attorneys for the Institute will conduct an investigation and will make a recommendation to the Jackson City School Board based on its findings on, or after, March 20.

“It is reasonable and appropriate for the school district to consider the overall context, purpose, and history of the 'Hall of Honor' display and not to take any premature actions, such as removing the portrait or succumbing to legal threats from an organization such as FFRF,” said Hiram Sasser, Director of Litigation for Liberty Institute,.

“We want to ensure that Jackson City School District follows the Constitution, which includes not engaging in religious hostility by immediately removing part of the 'Hall of Honor' display that has been in place for at least 65 years without complaint,” said Jackson City Schools Superintendent Phil Howard.

So far no group has taken formal legal action against the district over the portrait.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 1/10/13 @ 10:40 a.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- The American Civil Liberties Union says it sent letter to the Jackson City School District, warning school officials that a portrait of Jesus hanging in the Jackson Middle School is unconstitutional.

Last week, a group called "Freedom from Religion" sent a letter to Superintendent Phil Howard demanding the portrait, which had hanging in the school for 75 years, be taken down.

The group’s demand sparked outrage from many in the community

Howard says based on his research the school is not breaking any laws. He says the portrait was donated by a student group in 1937 and is part of the building’s history.

During Tuesday’s school board meeting, the board fully supported Howard’s decision to leave the portrait in place.

The ACLU said in their letter that the “Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits government institutions from displaying religious imagery unless that display is for a secular purpose.”

“In this case, there are no other historical or religious figures displayed, making it very clear that the portrait is non-secular and meant to endorse one religion in particular,” said ACLU of Ohio Litigation Coordinator and Staff Attorney Drew Dennis.

So far no group has taken formal legal action against the district over the portrait.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 1/8/13 @ 10 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- The portrait of Jesus hanging in a Jackson County, Ohio middle school that gained a lot of attention this week will be staying up.

Superintendent Phil Howard addressed a crowd of hundreds who attended the school board meeting at Jackson High School Tuesday night, saying the board fully supported his decision to leave the portrait in place.

A group called "Freedom from Religion" had sent a letter to Howard demanding the portrait, which had hung in the school 75 years, be taken down.

The group’s demand sparked outrage from many in the community, leading to a big turnout for Tuesday night’s meeting, which had to be moved to the cafeteria to make room for the crowd.

Prior to Howard’s announcement, several people voiced their opinions during the open discussion segment of the meeting.

"I am tired, without being blunt, of the political correctness that is going on in this country right now,” Tom Jones, a missionary from Minford, said. “It is tearing up our country."

Reaction from those in attendance made it clear which side the majority was on, as those in favor of the picture remaining were applauded. Those in favor of it being removed were booed.

"It is still violating the U.S. Constitution and must be removed immediately," Tricia Sturgeon said at a podium in front of the cafeteria.

Howard says based on his research the school is not breaking any laws. He says the portrait was donated by a student group in 1937 and is part of the building’s history.



UPDATE 1/8/13 @ 6 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) – Folks living in the city of Jackson are making sure their voices are heard Tuesday night.

A huge turnout is expected at the Jackson City School Board meeting, after the district came under fire by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The group sent a letter last week, demanding a picture of Jesus Christ be taken down at Jackson Middle School.

The picture has hung in the building for 65 years.

Folks in Jackson are mainly upset that a group based in Wisconsin is coming into their town and telling them what to do with their school.

WSAZ.com's Lauren Schmoll wanted to find out more about the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Schmoll made some calls and spoke with one of their staff attorneys via Skype.

Rebecca Markert is an attorney who sent the letter to Jackson City Schools, demanding the portrait of Christ be taken down.

She doesn't mince words when talking about the case.

“I've never seen a portrait of Jesus up in a public school. So that's new to me,” Markert said.

“So you're saying this is a worse violation that what you're used to seeing?” Schmoll asked.

“Absolutely,” Markert said. “Yes. It's probably one of the most egregious I've ever seen.”

Freedom from Religion has been around since the 1970s.
It's a non-profit group that is supported by 19,000 members who pay dues of $40 a year.

“They're largely atheists and agnostics,” Markert said. “There are some celebrities. But mostly they're just ordinary citizens.”

There are 12 full time employees, but last year, the group sent more than 1,000 letters objecting to what Markert calls state-church violations.

And Christianity isn't the only target.

“We did some letters of objection over menorahs -- the Jewish Hanukkah symbol,” Markert said. “I've also been dealing with a school on the East Coast which allows a separate room for Muslim students to pray during the day. It isn't just limited to Christianity.”

The Jackson situation isn't the first time Freedom from Religion has intervened in our area.

Just last year, the group sent a letter to Kanawha County Schools, demanding a school-sanctioned prayer held before Sissonville football games be stopped.

The superintendent banned the prayer after the district determined a precedent had been set in prior cases.

Markert says most of Freedom from Religion’s cases are resolved out of court, including the Sissonville case.



ORIGINAL STORY 1/7/2013 @ 6 p.m.
JACKSON, Ohio (WSAZ) -- The city of Jackson is rallying around its school district after a group called Freedom from Religion sent a letter demanding the superintendent remove a portrait of Jesus from the school’s Hall of Honor.

A Facebook group was started Friday to help support the school board's position of keeping the picture. Three days later, it already has nearly 11,000 members.

“Seeing that picture, it meant something to me as far as hope,” alumna Erika Keaton said. “It brought hope to me.”

The portrait of Jesus Christ has hung in the same building since 1937. It was donated by a student group.

“It hangs here amongst many other photos here in our Hall of Honor,” Superintendent Phil Howard said. “I honestly believe that for someone to say that photo excludes anyone is really a reach.”

The community's reaction was immediate.

“A lot of people are outraged because of how outsiders have come into our town," Keaton said. "Not come into our town, but can write a letter from a thousand miles away and tell us how to run our school.”

Jon Hensler is the president of the group Citizens of Jackson County for Jesus. He says watching the likes grow on Facebook was very emotional.

“You wonder in today's world what our children and our grandchildren are going to have,” Hensler said. “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 says even if the Freedom from Religion foundation wins, they'll never be able to take Christ out of Jackson City Schools.

“It's not going to happen because Christ lives within us,” Hensler said. “We know that.”

And perhaps the complaint will even bring some good.

“It's just affected so many people in a positive reaction, and I think it's for the good,” Keaton said. “That the complaint was made regarding the picture. As far as unity, it's brought us together.”

Although the vast majority of people WSAZ.com spoke with want the picture to remain in the school, there are some out there who support the folks at Freedom from Religion.

One of those is Tricia Sturgeon.

She says the picture was hanging when she attended Jackson High School.

While it didn't offend her then, times have changed.

"I find it offensive if it in any way makes other people feel uncomfortable,” Sturgeon said. “Or makes other people feel they have to accept something they aren’t ready to accept."

The next school board meeting is 7 p.m. Tuesday. A huge turnout is expected.


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