Monday, January 14, 2013

Jesus Picture Causes Stir in High School

Jesus as Jackson City students see him.
For the last 66 or so years, a picture of Jesus has hung over the entrance to Jackson (Ohio) Middle School.  No student probably cared about the painting.  It’s unlikely anyone noticed it.  It’s not really a good likeness of Jesus anyway, since it shows a light-skinned man with a beard and long, flowing hair.  The real Jesus would have looked Semitic.  The picture is an idealized version of a Roman god that was appropriated into Christianity long ago.

Then, in early January, one person anonymously wrote to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin and mentioned the picture, which was a long-ago gift from a student organization.

That led to a request the picture be removed and a crowded, animated meeting of the local school board to discuss it.

Paul Howard
Jackson City superintendent of schools Phil Howard doesn’t understand the fuss. He got absolutely furious when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Freedom from Religion Foundation stepped into the discussion.

"I'm certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wisconsin who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down," Howard told a television station.

He later addressed a group of 300 people who attended the recent board meeting, saying that the picture has "has historical significance. It hasn't hurt anyone.”  That to him, made the picture legal.

The preamble to the Constitution
Not to the Foundation. “The school cannot endorse religion over non-religion," Rebecca Markert from the Foundation said in a published interview.  "That sends an incredibly powerful message of religious endorsement, specifically Christianity, which is an egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution. If this goes to court, the district would lose."

The ACLU agrees.  "Separation of church and state is one of our nation's oldest traditions," a spokesman said in a prepared statement.  "The founders of our country recognized that public institutions need to be welcoming, inclusive places for all citizens, regardless of their faith or creed… The fact that this portrait has been hanging for many years does not change the fact that it promotes one set of religious beliefs at the expense of all others."

Courts have definitely taken the ACLU’s side in the past.  For example, a high school in Rhode Island had to take down a prayer banner that had been installed in 1963.  The student who filed the complaint won a $40,000 ACLU scholarship for her efforts.

Ideealized Muhammed
Zealots will argue that religious objects don’t matter.  Yes, they do.  You can bet Jackson High School wouldn’t have placed a picture of Mohammed, Lao Tze, Buddha or any other non-Christian figure over its entrance.

In the Christian world, there is only one “true” religion.  In reality, there are many religions.  They are all true to someone.  Most Americans are Christian, of course.  In this country, 78.4 percent of the population is Protestant or Catholic, with a smattering of Mormon, Jehovah Witnesses, and Greek and Russian Orthodox, among other sects.

That leaves 1.7 percent Jewish, .7 percent Buddhist and .6 percent Muslim, according to the latest report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Heaven to atheists?
The rest?  They don’t belong to any religion.  They are either “nothing in particular,” which is most of them, or atheists and agnostics.  Their preferred religious painting might be one of a blue sky with maybe a few fluffy clouds.

The real point is that a public school, which caters to all faiths, should not place a painting that endorses one belief.  It’s as simple as that.

If you want a painting of Jesus to admire, carry it in your pocket or purse, get it tattooed on your body.  Nothing wrong with these options.  You want to pray to Jesus?  That’s great.  Go ahead.  Just don’t do it over the loudspeaker or in a public assembly where everyone else is forced to participate.

Religion is a private matter.  That’s an important lesson Jackson High School and every other public institution needs to learn.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

1 comment:

  1. I would suggest, Mr. Lazarus, the very point you yourself brought up, and that is that this portrait can't be of Jesus. It is ethnically incorrect, not to mention we have no way of actually knowing what Jesus really looked like. So, my argument is, how can anyone be offended by a picture of someone they don't even know? And if the rest of us choose to let the picture represent someone special to us, again, why should anyone care?
    And I would suggest the ACLU, and others, need to do a little more digging into the history of this once great nation. MY founding fathers were Christians and they in NO WAY intended for God to be removed from everything, as some would have us believe. It was only later that non-Christians began taking God out of everything. When I was young, there was no school violence, we had no fears for our safety, and we began our day with the Lord's Prayer. Now that God and prayer have been removed, we need only look at the moral decline and increase in such horrendous violence in this country to see the proof that you reap what you sow. Arguments of 'separation of church and state' don't hold water, as far as I'm concerned. The way that has been so misinterpreted was never our founder's intentions.