A small Ohio town has entered a national debate over religion in public schools.
A portrait of Jesus Christ was taken down from Jackson High School in Jackson, Ohio, on Wednesday after concerns arose over potential costs from an ongoing federal lawsuit, AP reports.
"When you get into these kinds of legal battles, you're not talking about money you can raise with bake sales and car washes. It's not fair to take those resources from our kids' education," Jackson City School District Superintendent Phil Howard told AP.
The voluntary decision to remove the “Head of Christ” painting came from Jackson City School District officials after the district’s insurance company denied coverage for legal fees and did not want to risk taxpayers’ money, Howard wrote in a statement.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation on behalf of a student and two parents who argued that the painting was unconstitutionally promoting Christianity in public schools, AP reports.
The anonymous student in the lawsuit identifies as a Christian and feels the portrait distorts his or her beliefs. The other plaintiffs claim the painting interferes with their teachings as parents by placing greater importance of one belief system over another, the Portsmouth Daily Times reports.
The school district argued that the portrait of Christ represented private student speech since it was a gift from the Hi-Y student group, The Columbus Dispatch reports.
“We’re in a predicament where we have to balance things,” Howard told the Portsmouth Daily Times. “We can’t make that kind of endorsement (of religion) as a government entity. But we also can’t infringe upon the rights of our student groups and our students.”
The painting that depicts the “Head of Christ” has hung in school hallways since 1947 and is owned by the Hi-Y club. Until recently, it hung at the middle school and was later moved to the town's high school where it was placed next to alumni and renowned residents including late four-term Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, AP reports.
Travis Hall, a Jackson High student, remembers the portrait from his middle school days.
“Every day in school, I remember it being there,” Hall told WBNS-TV back in January. “It was just motivation. It’s something I remember being there and I would love for it to stay there.”
A complaint in February led to the federal lawsuit that launched the small school district and 7,000-person town into a national debate over whether religious-themed displays should be allowed in public schools, AP reports.
Even with the portrait removed, the school district’s battle may not be over.
"We have to respect the rights of the club," Howard told 10 TV. "Failure to do so might open the district to even another lawsuit, this time by the Hi-Y club."