Donors defend school’s Jesus painting in costly legal battle
A divided school board in West Virginia has decided to use about $150,000 in donated money to fund a legal fight to keep a print of Jesus Christ on display in one of its high schools that has been there for more than 40 years.
Three weeks ago, the board voted 3 to 2 to proceed with a court battle to retain the picture at Bridgeport High School, if $150,000 in private funding was raised. “We raised that amount in nine days,” board memberMikeQueen said on Aug. 16.
He said one family contributed $53,000, and there were also donations from celebrities, such as Pat Booneand country singer Stella Parton.
The school board is fighting a lawsuit filed earlier this summerbyAmericans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU of West Virginia, which argues that the religious display in the public school is a violation of requirements for the separation of church and state.
“What’s wrong with having role models with religious beliefs in
schools? Children should understand the religions of the world,” given the conflicts that exist today in the name of religion, said Mr. Queen, who has led efforts to retain the print.
But the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Churchand State, said the picture “depicts the leader and founder of the Christian faith. How can they act like a portrait of Jesus that is hanging in a public school be anything but a promotion of the Christian religion?”
The board set the $150,000 threshold for legal expenses in this case after deciding not to spend tax dollars.
The board’s president and vice president are unwilling participants in the legal battle. On June 6, they voted to remove the print, a rendering of a 1941 work by artist Warren Sallman. But one board member was absent, and that motion failed in a tie vote.
“This is an issue over which people are quite passionate,” Harrison County School Superintendent Carl Friebel said.
School board attorney Richard Yurko said one legal group predicted the board’s chances of winning to be about 1 percent.
Mr. Yurko cited a case decided by a federal appeals court in Michigan a decade ago, which dealt with a copy of the same painting of Jesus in a public school. The appeals court ruled the picture unconstitutional.
“If the court follows that ruling, we will probably lose,” the lawyer said.
But he said the majority of the board feels that the views of courts in cases such as this are changing, noting that questions have been raised about the validity of legal standards used in the earlier decision.
“They say the picture has never been used to proselytize,” so there is no reason to remove it, Mr. Yurko said.
But Board President Wilson W. Currey said the effort is a waste of time.
“I feel personally we are wasting a lot of time, money and effort,” he said. “We’re on this board to make educational decisions and to improve things for kids.”