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Ohio town latest focus of religion legal debate

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm •  Published: February 13, 2013

JACKSON, Ohio (AP) — Since just after World War II, a portrait of Jesus has hung in a Jackson City Schools building, attracting little discussion and no controversy that anyone seems to recall.

But that changed recently after a complaint, and this small city in mostly rural Appalachian Ohio has now found itself as the latest battleground in a national debate over what displays of religion are constitutional.

Facing a federal lawsuit charging that the middle school portrait illegally promotes religion in a public school, school officials dug in their heels Tuesday night at a board meeting. They declared that the portrait belongs to the Christian-based student club that presented it in 1947 and is part of a "limited public forum" in which other student groups can hang portraits of "inspirational figures central to the club's meaning and purpose." Taking it down would censor students' private speech, it said.

"It's a delicate balance for us as a district," Superintendent Phil Howard said, adding that he thought the board's action protected students' rights while making clear it wasn't endorsing a religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which joined Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation in suing last week in U.S. District Court, isn't likely to buy the board's reasoning.

"It appears they have assembled a number of pieces and parts from previously unsuccessful arguments (in other cases) and attempted to turn them into something new," ACLU spokesman Nick Worner said Wednesday.

The case has brought an unaccustomed spotlight to the city of some 7,000 people, better known for its annual Apple Festival and the Ironmen prep footballers, who play in a 6,000-seat stadium. Like much of the region, its unemployment runs higher — 8.3 percent in the latest figures — than statewide rates, but two frozen-food makers in the area each employ more than 1,000, and the downtown area has been spruced up with brick sidewalks and period lighting.

"I'm surprised, I guess," Diana Lewis, a middle school teacher and Jackson High graduate, said of the controversy that brought a phalanx of TV cameras inside the elementary gymnasium for Tuesday's board meeting. "It was just always there. It's never really been used as a big topic."

Some longtime residents say they'd rather the town be left alone.

"I don't think these outside groups should be involved," said Clarence Rice, 82. "It's none of their business. It's been there 65 years."

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