updated 8/15/2006 9:25:05 PM ET 2006-08-16T01:25:05

The Harrison County Board of Education said Tuesday it will fight civil liberties groups' efforts to remove a painting of Jesus Christ at Bridgeport High School.

The board vowed earlier not to spend public money defending itself but had given outside interests a Tuesday deadline to raise at least $150,000 for a defense fund.

That goal was surpassed, board member Mike Queen said after the board met in private.

"This board is moving forward," Queen told a cheering audience of about 50 people, many of whom wore white T-shirts that read, "You can't take our Jesus down."

"I feel proud to be a West Virginian and an American today because of what these people did here," said actor Mayf Nutter, who helped with the fund-raising. "They said they would not be pushed off their own porch."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court in June, saying the painting, "Head of Christ," sends the message that the school endorses Christianity as its official religion.

Left behind by retiring guidance counselor
The painting, which depicts Jesus in sepia tones on a large canvas and hangs outside the principal's office, has been at the school for 37 years. A guidance counselor left it behind upon retirement.

Residents at the meeting said the issue has unified the community.

"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.

The board will select a lead counsel from among eight national groups with expertise in constitutional law that have offered legal help. Meanwhile, the board will now get back to issues involving education, Queen said.

"This has been somewhat of a distraction, an important distraction though," he said. "But we now want the citizens of Harrison County to know we'll be prepared to open up school here in two weeks. We're in the education business."

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the decision to fight the lawsuit could be expensive for the defense.

"I think they have no chance of convincing a court that a portrait of Jesus in a high school doesn't promote Christianity, and such promotion is prohibited by the First Amendment," Lynn said.

The Christian Freedom Fund, established to pay the school board's legal fees, raised most of the money in less than two weeks. Bridgeport High students raised an additional $6,700.

"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. "All we're saying is, 'not without a fight.'"

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