Groups: Remove Jesus portrait from Ohio school

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Two groups that sued to stop the display of a Jesus portrait in a school district's middle school now want the portrait removed from the wall of a high school where it was moved last month.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in February charging that the portrait, which was then displayed in the Jackson City Schools middle school, unconstitutionally promotes religion in a public school. They filed an amended complaint Monday, asking the court to also prohibit the portrait from display in the high school for the same reason.

School officials said last month that the portrait was moved at the preference of a Christian-based student club the southern Ohio district views as its owner. School officials said then that taking the portrait down would censor students' private speech.

School district offices were closed Monday night, and school officials did not immediately return a message seeking comment. The 2,500-student district is in Jackson, a city of about 7,000 residents in mostly rural Appalachian Ohio.

The superintendent of the Jackson City Schools, Phil Howard, said last month that the portrait was moved at the request of the Hi-Y club, which put it up in 1947 in a building that is now the middle school.

The complaint about the portrait has left the district in the midst of an ongoing national debate over what displays of religion are constitutional.

"We have to respect the rights of the club," Howard said after the portrait was moved. "Failure to do so might open the district to even another lawsuit, this time by the Hi-Y club," or violate the U.S Constitution by "turning the portrait into government speech."

The school board voted in February to keep the portrait up while allowing other student groups to hang portraits related to their focuses. Howard said that the board policy created a limited public forum at the middle school and the high school for student groups to be able to display portraits.

Howard said then that the club has the right to hang it in either school.

The portrait now is hanging on a wall alongside a trophy case, but the amended lawsuit filed in federal court in Columbus says the moving of the portrait to the high school and creation of the "limited public forum" policy is "nothing more than a contrived pretext to conceal" school officials' continued involvement with the maintenance and display of the portrait.

ACLU of Ohio spokesman Nick Worner said last month after the portrait was moved that the group's position hadn't changed.

"It doesn't matter which public building the portrait is in," Worner said then. "It's an unconstitutional endorsement of religion on the part of a public school."

Worner did not immediately return calls to the ACLU's Cleveland headquarters on Monday.

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