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Article updated: 4/3/2013 11:05 AM

Ohio school says Jesus portrait down

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By Associated Press

CINCINNATI -- A Jesus portrait that has hung in a southern Ohio school district since 1947 was taken down Wednesday, because of concerns about the potential costs of a federal lawsuit against its display.

The superintendent of Jackson City Schools said the decision was made after the district's insurance company declined to cover litigation expenses. He said the faculty adviser and two student members of the Hi-Y Club, a Christian-based service club that the school says owns the portrait, took it down at his direction.

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"At the end of the day, we just couldn't roll the dice with taxpayer money," Superintendent Phil Howard told The Associated Press. "When you get into these kinds of legal battles, you're not talking about money you can raise with bake sales and carwashes. It's not fair to take those resources from our kids' education."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation had sued on behalf of a student and two parents, calling the portrait an unconstitutional promotion of religion in a public school. The student and parents weren't identified publicly by the groups, saying they would face backlash from portrait supporters, some of whom had suggested that they should leave town and find another school.

An ACLU spokesman said the school disclosed its decision at a federal court hearing Tuesday in Columbus. The organization will wait to see whether the portrait stays down.

"The case is still open; there was no actual ruling (by the court)," spokesman Nick Worner said. But he added there would be no reason to pursue a court order if the portrait isn't put back up.

Hiram Sasser, an attorney with the Liberty Institute that helped defend the school, said Wednesday that the Hi-Y Club could file its own lawsuit for the right to display the portrait, but he didn't know its plans. Messages were left for the club's adviser and legal representative. Howard said the portrait was in the club's possession.

The "Head of Christ," a popular depiction of Jesus, had been in an entranceway's "Hall of Honor" in a middle school building that was formerly the high school. It was near portraits of dozens of prominent alumni and people with local roots such as the late four-term Ohio Gov. James Rhodes. The portrait was moved recently by the club to the current high school building.

A complaint that triggered the February lawsuit put the 2,500-student district in the midst of the ongoing national debate over what religious-themed displays are permissible. Jackson is a city of some 7,000 in mostly rural Appalachia.

The ACLU had an earlier lawsuit against schools in nearby Adams County over a Ten Commandments display that federal courts ruled was primarily religious in nature; however, courts including the U.S. Supreme Court have allowed some displays if deciding their primary purpose is nonreligious and they don't promote one religion over another.

With vocal backing from many community members, Jackson's board initially voted to keep the portrait up, saying it belonged to the Hi-Y Club that donated it and that removing it would infringe upon students' private rights to freedom of speech. The board said it was part of a "limited public forum," and that other student clubs could put up appropriate portraits reflecting their mission. Howard said Wednesday no others had been put up.

The groups that sued said in court documents Monday that the move was "nothing more than a contrived pretext to conceal" what they said was the school officials' continued involvement with the maintenance and display of the portrait.

With the portrait gone three days after Easter Sunday, Howard said he expected most residents to be disappointed.

"Obviously, the majority of people in our community wanted it to stay up somewhere in the school district," he said. "This all happened so fast, I don't know that anybody has had time to digest it."

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