Ohio town latest focus of religion legal debate

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm •  Published: February 13, 2013
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He remembers when the portrait was put up, in what was then the high school, by the Hi-Y Club in 1947. That's the year his brother Frank, a club member, died of leukemia.

The "Head of Christ" portrait, a popular depiction of Jesus, hangs near a school entranceway. It's the dominant image in the district's "Hall of Honor," which has nearly four dozen photos of past school leaders and other prominent Jackson County natives including the late four-time Gov. James A. Rhodes.

Howard, superintendent for six years, said he hadn't heard much about the portrait, and certainly nothing negative, until the Jan. 2 letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation saying it had received a complaint. It's been active in challenging school religious displays, such as a southeast Texas high school's cheerleader banners carrying biblical verses and two Pennsylvania schools with Ten Commandments monuments.

The ACLU has had a series of similar cases in recent years, including a long-running lawsuit against schools in nearby Adams County over a Ten Commandments display that courts ruled was primarily religious.

But some rulings, including by the Supreme Court, have upheld displays if they didn't promote one religious sect over another and if their main purpose was nonreligious.

"These cases are cropping up now, I think, because there's an increased sensitivity to religious displays because the American public is more religiously diverse than it used to be," said Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law expert at University of Pennsylvania Law School. "So practices that used to go unchallenged, and largely unnoticed ... are now more likely to be considered divisive."

At a Jackson board meeting last month, some in a hundreds-strong crowd booed anyone questioning the Jesus portrait. Attorneys for the lawsuit plaintiffs — a middle-school student and two parents identified only as Sam Does — say social media comments have been threatening, with calls for those opposed to the portrait to leave town.

Bob Eisnaugle, an art teacher and Hi-Y Club adviser, said he didn't like seeing some of the angry reactions at the earlier meeting. But he also supports keeping the portrait up.

"The majority of people want it to stay," he said. "And we still live in a democracy."

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