Settlement Reached In Case Over Jesus Portrait In Ohio Middle School

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In an earlier blog post, we addressed whether an Ohio school district violated the First Amendment by hanging a portrait of Jesus in a middle school.  The portrait allegedly was a gift to the school board by a Christian student club and had been hanging in the school district’s schools since the 1940s. In February, the school board voted to allow the picture to remain despite a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). The school board said that the portrait is not owned by the school but rather belongs to a Christian student club, and that removing it might violate the First Amendment rights of the students in the club.

The parties reportedly reached a tentative agreement months ago when, in April, the school board took the picture down. The legal fight was rekindled, however, when the ACLU and FFRF learned that the school district continued to keep the portrait in its high school building in an area visible to those entering an art-storage area, and displayed the picture on a school lawn during a prayer meeting. After a flurry of more legal filings, the school district decided to settle, agreeing to remove the picture from its school buildings, to pay each of the anonymous students who brought the complaint $3,000, and to pay the ACLU and FFRF $80,000.

As we pointed out in our earlier blog post, there are a number of key takeaways that school leaders can glean from this case.

Courts are generally skeptical of religious displays, including religious works of art, that appear to be school-sponsored speech unless there is a clear secular purpose behind the display. A secular purpose might include a display including art work from a number of religions or examples of historical figures. A court also may be concerned if only one religion, such as Christianity, is represented. When the religious speech purportedly is that of a student or students, the issue becomes more difficult. Whether it is a posting by a student group, a student submission to a class or contest that includes religious content, student speech with religious undertones at a talent show or a graduation or other assembly, or the reading of prayers by students at a football game, there are a myriad of legal rules and challenges of which school leaders should be aware. The Ohio settlement makes clear that balancing these rules and challenges can be difficult, and sometimes costly.