Jesus Portrait Case to Go to Court

The school board in Harrison County, West Virginia has decided to fight a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Americans United over a large portrait of Jesus that hangs in the hallway of the high school there. They had vowed not to use public money to fight the suit, but a fund raising campaign raised over $150,000 for a defense fund, prompting the board to vote to fight rather than settle the case (thus showing that the notion that schools have to capitulate to the ACLU's "intimidation" is false; given the popular public opinion against the ACLU in most such cases, it should not be hard to do something similar in most places around the country when necessary). A quick look at the arguments offered by the locals in defense of the picture reveals much.

"It was just a matter of time that someone came along and tried to take away our freedom," said Eddy Currey, a 1985 Bridgeport High graduate.

I'm sorry, Eddy, but this has precisely nothing to do with your freedom. Freedom exists at an individual level only. As an individual, you have an unquestioned right to hang a picture of anyone you wish on your own property, and the ACLU will be the first ones to defend that freedom. But this is a government facility, paid for with public tax money. Decisions made there are not a matter of individual rights, but of government authority.

"The ACLU is saying they have the right to come in and find a few people who disagree with the majority and use them to overtake the majority," said Dennis Swindle, a local minister whose daughter attends the school.

I frankly think this is a problem with the way we teach civics and American history in this country. The notion that constitutional issues should be decided by majority vote is unbelievably common, especially among the religious right, but it could not be more false. The entire purpose of the Bill of Rights was to remove such issues from the reach of electoral majorities (they can of course amend the constitution to change that, but the founders made that extremely difficult to do precisely to avoid it happening frivolously - and given that there have been 11,000 proposed amendments in our history and less than 30 have been passed attests to their success in that regard).

Now, it's plausible to argue that a situation like this does not violate a properly interpreted establishment clause; I think that argument is false, but it's not absurd and indefensible. However, the argument that it's wrong because it violates what the majority wants clearly is absurd and indefensible. The Federal courts were designed intentionally to be as independent of public opinion as possible specifically to avoid allowing public opinion to influence the outcome. That's why they made judges unelected and why they gave them lifetime appointments, and they clearly expressed that this purpose was vital. Thus, Hamilton's argument that without total judicial independence and the authority to overturn unconstitutional acts, all of our rights and privileges "would amount to nothing."

I also think that this is, again, a perfect situation in which to examine the basic hypocrisy of so many anti-separation advocates. Change the situation just slightly: imagine that instead of a picture of Jesus, the school hung a picture of Muhammed. Would Eddy Currey still be arguing that their "freedom" was being taken away? Not a chance. Even if the public there supported such a picture completely, do you suppose Dennis Swindle would be saying that the ACLU has no right to overturn the will of the majority? Of course not. Would anyone claim that hanging such a picture exclusively does not amount to an endorsement of Islam? I can't imagine anyone would.

Is this an endorsement? Of course it is, and anyone who argues otherwise is either lying or delusional. If it was part of a larger display for a history class and it included pictures of all the major religious leaders in history, then one could plausibly argue that there is no endorsement taking place. But that's not the case here. No one hangs a picture of Jesus in their home for a reason other than because it is an object of faith and veneration; the same is true here.

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I frankly think this is a problem with the way we teach civics and American history in this country. The notion that constitutional issues should be decided by majority vote is unbelievably common, especially among the religious right, but it could not be more false.

Do you think it's ignorance or just trying to argue from a point of precerived strength? I think if the tables were reversed and the good reverend found himself in the minority, he'd suddenly "remember" individual rights.

I find it unbelievable that a public high school would hang a picture of Jesus. It seems that by now even if the people in charge at the school thought they had a right to put it up they would realize they were asking for trouble.

It's hard to believe there are still schools like this, and I live in and attended public school in South Carolina.

No one hangs a picture of Jesus in their home for a reason other than because it is an object of faith and veneration

Well, I use mine for target practice, but I know what you mean.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 17 Aug 2006 #permalink

Well, I use mine for target practice, but I know what you mean.

Oh ho ho! Ouch for Jesus!

Also, well said Ed. Though you have to admit, this is a straightforward public religious endorsement.

It seems that by now even if the people in charge at the school thought they had a right to put it up they would realize they were asking for trouble.

Maybe that was their intent: to provoke a fight, and give themselves yet another opportunity to smear the ACLU as "anti-God" and scream and cry about the "war on Christians" and thus reinforce their prejudices and justify any present or planned trashing of people not like themselves. (How long did it take them to raise all that money?)

On the other hand, with all the hysteria and lies being spread about gays, Pagans, atheists, the War on Some Drugs, Bush critics and Michael Schiavo, this fight over a portrait in a WV school (which has been there for about 37 years already) just seems like a waste of ACLU resources, even though they're clearly in the right. As Sun Tsu said, there are some battles that must not be fought, even if you know you can win them.

While I agree completely with your point, I think your example is not very well chosen. If a school featured a large picture of Muhammed, Muslims (or at least some of them) would be more likely to protest violently against it than to regard it as endorsing their religion.

Indeed, the argument of majority is horrible and weak, but what about tradition? According to the article, the portrait was there for the past 37 years...

Scratch that, the school has no chance of winning. 37 years isn't that long of a time and the fact that it was from a guidance counselor gets rid of the possible arguement that the portrait is a "donation".

By Monimonika (not verified) on 17 Aug 2006 #permalink

I'll bet that hanging a portrait of Buddha or Mohammed would be seen as unconstitutional to the WVers, though...

And I, too, agree with Ed's appraisal of the grasp of civics on the part of most people and especially the Righties. Dead on.

I would like to see what the Bill of Rights would look like with thoses added 11,000 proposed amendments. But then again, I probably wouldn't be allowed to view it, would I?

By CheezeBoi (not verified) on 17 Aug 2006 #permalink

I am endlessly fascinated by the delusion among Christians that the anorexic long-haired non-Semetic hippie in the robes with the plate behind his head is somehow an accurate depiction of the Biblical Jesus in the first place. Why not hang up a picture of the school principal and call that "Jesus"? We are, after all, allegedly made in His image. Would that get them off the hook with the law?

Of course you realize, there can be no picture of Mohammed (blessings b & etc.) if they were ~really~ to endorse Islam. That would be blasphemy; mullahs would cry throughout the world. /irony

Ooh, good one, Ed. I hope they bring in an activist judge to see this case. That way when they lose, they will have something to complain about. Oh yeah, they'll whine about that anyway.

Are there any pics of the prophet Joseph Smith in any Utah public high schools?

Don't bet against the US District or appellate judge determing the portrait to be "historical" if it's been there for 37 years. The court house in Chester County PA, where I live, bears a bronze plaque of a Protestant version of the Ten Commandments. It was placed there in the early '20's under the sponsorship of a local group of Protestant ministers and churches and the acquiescence of the then county commissioners. Several years ago the PA ACLU on behalf of some local plaintiffs challenged the plaque. They won at the district level but lost at the appellate level. The three judge appellate panel, one of whose members was the sister of Donald Trump, rules the bronze plaque was "historic" and could stay. The ACLU, seeking to cut its costs, did not appeal. Thirty seven is much less than 80+, but I can still see a symapthetic judge agreeing with the historic claim. So don't assume that logic, precedent, and tradition will prevail. But if the courts did rule in favor of the school, then I may look at my Aunt Myrtle's hats, some of which are a century old, somewhat differently. Surely they are historic and belong in the Smithsonian.

Here's betting they stuck the picture up in the school without ever taking a vote or holding a discussion on the matter. I love the assumed majority angle there.

I frankly think this is a problem with the way we teach civics and American history in this country.

Newsflash: Civics is no longer taught in public secondary schools. We learn the history of the Constitution, we learn about the Bill of Rights and don't delve into the exact wording, and we run over the important Supreme Court cases (Roe v. Wade, Marbury v. Madison, etc.). I had never even heard of the Federalist papers until I saw it mentioned on this blog.

I went to one of the best public high schools in the country and there was no civics class, and I've never heard any of my peers (Class of '05) mention one either.

By FishyFred (not verified) on 17 Aug 2006 #permalink

Wow, Robert O'Brien returns and decides to comment at PZ's place. Amusing. If he thinks I was tough on him, wait till Myers finishes with him.

I might support them on this one, if it's one of those "winking Jesus" pictures.
Isn't there a class clown at the school quick enough to paint on a mustache, or add on gargantuan genetalia?

Fishy,

Well, I would have to argue then that your school wasn't one of the top in the country when it comes to their social studies department then. I've taught in three different school districts in two separate states and in each case we taught the controversies (and how the judicial branch operates within those controversial issues) in order to emphasize how the bill of rights (etc.) is designed to protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of a majority. In addition to Locke, the Declaration of Independence, and the other documents/people/ideas that form the foundation of the Constitution (and our general concepts/ideas) we discuss the Federalist Papers. In fact I say perhaps a dozen times while discussing the BoR "if anyone tells you this is what the founding fathers meant, and they don't mention the Federalist Papers, they don't know what they're talking about."

We talk about the lemon test, controversial issues like flag burning, etc., and I know we receive complaints just about every year because of it (rather conservative school district). From our point of view government/civics should be as much a critical thinking exercise as it is the simple meat and potatoes operations of our government. If you don't understand WHY the system works the way it does, then you don't understand jack ... or squat.

By dogmeatIB (not verified) on 17 Aug 2006 #permalink

Isn't there a class clown at the school quick enough to paint on a mustache, or add on gargantuan genetalia?

Well, there is a clown quick enough to STEAL the picture. Yup, happened last night:

http://www.dailymail.com/news/News/2006081833/

I agree with drb.

Their best chance of winning would be to claim that the portrait print demonstrably bears no relationship to any actual historical person born in the vicinity of Jerusalem at that time. They could even throw in doubts that there was a historical Jesus.

Of course there might be some conflict here for the lawyer. He's supposed to be getting his client off the most effective way possible. Probably neither he or his client will go there.

Of the 37 years, just how many of them were before the plaintiff first complained, I wonder.

By JohnnieCanuck (not verified) on 18 Aug 2006 #permalink