Donors de­fend school’s Je­sus paint­ing in costly le­gal bat­tle

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Joyce Howard Price

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.”

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