Conflicting Stories in Jesus Picture Case

A settlement has been reached in the lawsuit in Harrison County, WV, over a picture of Jesus hanging in the hallway of a public high school there. But amusingly, both sides are declaring victory. The ADF, which apparently intervened at some point to represent the school board in negotiations, put out a press release declaring that the settlement "conforms to the board's consistent position that school officials did not violate the Establishment Clause by having had a painting of Jesus Christ on one of its walls." But Americans United, representing the plaintiffs, put out a press release congratulating the school board for "agreeing not to display a portrait of Jesus or other unconstitutional devotional art at its high school."

Which is correct? Well, the only one that provided any actual language from the settlement was the AU, and it makes it sound like pretty much a total victory. Here's what they quoted:

The settlement today ensures that the school board will not allow a display of Sallman's "Head of Christ" or unconstitutional displays of "any pictures, paintings, posters, prints, statues, carvings, or other items with religious content" at Bridgeport High School.

So this sounds very much like one of those settlements where someone says, "I'm not admitting that I ever did anything wrong, but I promise not to do it again." The entire issue in the case was whether the school could exclusively display Christian art without sending a clear message of endorsement, and the fact that they agreed to stop doing it means the plaintiffs win. I suspect that what really happened here is that the ADF told the school board that they were gonna lose the case so they better settle. If they really thought they could win the case, they certainly would have gone to court with it.

Davef at STACLU responds to the ADF press release and says, "There must be more to the story than this; most importantly why the ACLU and Americans United agreed to dismiss the case." The answer appears to be: because the ADF is lying. The ACLU and AU agreed to dismiss the case because the settlement does exactly what the suit tried to do, prevents the school board from endorsing Christianity over other religions.

The ADF has a habit of putting out press releases like this. In the earlier case where they sued on behalf of Steven Williams in Cupertino, California they issued two highly dishonest press releases. The first declared "Declaration of Independence Banned From Classroom", which was utter nonsense. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was on display at the school in several places, and was in the textbooks being used by the teacher claiming he wasn't allowed to teach it.

And when they bailed on the case and settled it without any change in policy at all from the school district and dropped the suit, they still declared victory. But nothing changed at all. The school's policy was the same before the suit and after the suit, and Mr. Williams' supplemental handouts were still inappropriate. Indeed, Williams quit his job immediately after the case settled, presumably because he was still not allowed to proselytize the way he thought he should be able to. It reminds me of the famous advice about the Vietnam War - when you're losing, declare victory and go home.

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The one board member to vote against the settlement, Mike Queen, candidly admitted in a Letter to the Editor:

I can tell you that constitutional law is very difficult and frustrating for me to fully and completely understand.

Based on his take, the ADF and the non-sane board members are trying to spin this as being limited to the stolen picture which the board had already voted not to hang again if it was recovered, thereby making it all moot (or so they claim).

Let's hope the rest of the board won't be dumb enough to follow Queen's loopy suggestion in this article that the "personal space" where district employees are allowed to display religious items includes teachers' classroom desks. If they are, we'll be hearing about West Virginia again.