WASHINGTON - June 28 - A federal lawsuit has been lodged against a public school district in West Virginia over a portrait of Jesus displayed outside the principal’s office at Bridgeport High School.
Two civil liberties organizations, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU of West Virginia, filed the lawsuit today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia after Harrison County school officials refused to remove the religious picture.
“Public schools must welcome children of all religious beliefs,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Display of a devotional portrait of Jesus sends the unmistakable message that Bridgeport High is endorsing Christianity. That leaves out students with other beliefs and violates the Constitution.”
Both Americans United and the ACLU of West Virginia had sent letters to school officials urging them to remove the portrait in order to avoid litigation.
AU’s Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, who is lead attorney in the Sklar v. Board of Education of Harrison County case, criticized Harrison County officials for running roughshod over a fundamental constitutional precept.
“School officials are flouting the First Amendment principle of church-state separation and in the process providing students a shoddy civics lesson,” said Katskee. “The Constitution forbids government to favor one faith over others.”
“The Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion is good for both government and religion,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia. “It keeps religion free and allows government to represent us all. In violating that ban, Bridgeport High School is interfering with the right of all students to freely express their religious beliefs.”
The groups’ lawsuit, filed on behalf of two Harrison County citizens, argues that the school’s display of the picture, a well-known devotional painting of Jesus by artist Warner Sallman, amounts to an official endorsement of religion, which violates the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.
Americans United’s Katskee, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan, Americans United Counsel Aram Schvey and ACLU of West Virginia Attorney Terri Baur are attorneys of record in the case.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
The ACLU of West Virginia is an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which was founded in 1920 to defend and advance civil liberties for all Americans.