A controversial portrait of Jesus hanging in a West Virginia public school that became the center of an Americans United-sponsored lawsuit was stolen Aug. 17, leading AU to make an offer to settle the case.
Since the devotional artwork, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” is no longer hanging in Bridgeport High School, attorneys with Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia have offered to drop the lawsuit if school officials will agree not to replace the picture with another sectarian display.
The print had hung outside the principal’s office at the high school for 30 years. Americans United tried to persuade school officials to remove it, but they refused. Acting on behalf of a parent and a teacher, AU and the ACLU filed a complaint in federal court June 28 seeking to have the portrait removed.
Local police are investigating the theft. A surveillance camera captured an image of a man with a crew cut, about 5’7” and 220 pounds, cutting the print out of the frame and walking off with it. He was wearing a hat, and his face was not visible.
Religious leaders in the area offered to replace the portrait, and school officials have intimated that they might accept the offer.
Officials with the Harrison County school district have also accepted an offer from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group, to defend them. However, district officials, perhaps aware that their case is weak, have at the same time signaled an interest in ending the litigation.
In presenting the settlement offer, Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee urged the board to accept it and end the legal wrangling. The offer calls on education officials to agree not to display any pictures, paintings or other renderings of Jesus or other religious figures, as well as any other devotional art or religious iconography.
In exchange for this agreement, Americans United and the ACLU will drop the lawsuit and agree not to request attorneys’ fees.
Katskee said the offer is fair and that resolving the matter out of court will save the district money and end divisiveness in the community.
The case took another strange turn in early September when board member Michael Queen announced that a student group would present a special gift to the school to replace the Jesus portrait. The gift turned out to be a gilded mirror accompanied by a plaque bearing a religious inscription.
The plaque read, “To know the will of God is the highest of all wisdom. The love of Jesus Christ lives within all of us.”
The mirror was presented to the school by student members of the Christian Freedom Alliance, an organization that has been raising money to help the school pay for the lawsuit.
Queen is a vocal critic of Americans United and the ACLU who has gone so far as to accuse the organizations of masterminding the theft of the portrait. He apparently acted on his own in accepting the plaque and displaying it in the school at the same spot where the portrait had hung.
School officials were not happy with his action.
“That inscription really blindsided everybody,” Harrison County Schools Superintendent Carl Friebel told the Associated Press. “It was the board’s understanding that the mirror was to be presented to the new principal, Mark DeFazio, as a show of respect. No inscription with Jesus or God mentioned in it was discussed.”
Friebel ordered the plaque removed. At that point, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the constitutional problems were resolved and called on the board to accept AU’s offer to end the litigation.
Queen seems determined to keep the issue alive and told the local media that Friebel lacked the authority to remove the plaque. Queen apparently sees the case as having larger implications.
“We don’t want every trace of Christianity erased from our schools,” Queen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “This particular case cannot go forward. I’m disappointed that someone’s been able to keep us from having our day in court, but we’re moving forward with a strategy. We’re moving forward with the merits of addressing Christianity in schools.”
The school board met Sept. 5 to discuss AU’s settlement offer but did not reach a decision. The matter was still under consideration as this issue of Church & State went to press.