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Town fights to keep Jesus painting in school

The board of education in Bridgeport, W. Va., a town of 8,000 people served by 40 churches, is fight to preserve its decidedly Christian aesthetic by defending a painting of Jesus that has hung in a public school for nearly 40 years.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tokens of Christianity, including crosses and religious mottos, are found in schools and government buildings all over Harrison County. The amenities in a women’s bathroom at the Board of Education offices even include a leather-bound pocket copy of “New Testament: Psalms Proverbs.”

The board of education has decided that Bridgeport, a town of 8,000 people served by 40 churches, will fight to preserve its decidedly Christian aesthetic.

And they’re not going to let the theft of a painting of Jesus from Bridgeport High School stand in the way of that battle.

Two civil liberties groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in June to remove the painting, “Head of Christ,” saying it sends the message that the public school endorses Christianity as its official religion.

The county Board of Education said last week it will fight the lawsuit, promising it would not spend public money defending itself. The Christian Freedom Fund raised more than $150,000 for a defense fund, including $6,700 raised by students at the school.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a national legal organization founded in part by Christian group Focus on the Family, was selected as lead counsel in the case.

“We have decided to step up to the plate here. This is important to us and reflects what our community wants in the schools,” school board member Mike Queen said after the decision to go to court was announced.

Painting stolen before case
Early Thursday, the painting that had been at the school for 37 years was stolen from a wall outside the principal’s office. The theft was caught by security cameras, but the thief hid his face.

Despite the theft, the legal battle will continue.

“The most logical question is ’Now that the picture’s gone, is it moot?”’ said Harrison County School superintendent Carl Friebel. “We’re all in uncharted water here, but if it resurfaces, then the case wouldn’t be moot.”

The school board hopes the community will help identify the thief, and Friebel said local churches had offered to replace the painting.

Monumental fight
Communities all over the country are fighting to keep Christian monuments, crosses and portraits in place, encouraged by the Bush Administration’s conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, says Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas and an expert in separation of church and state cases.

“Schools are considered the most sensitive location because with children, personal matters like religion are to be left to parents, not government,” Laycock said.

Monetary support like the funds raised for the Bridgeport legal battle is not always indicative of a unified community standard, he said.

“These religiously homogeneous small towns may have a large majority of a single faith, but they’re not nearly as unanimous as they might imagine,” Laycock said, explaining that people of other faiths, nonbelievers and Christians don’t want their religion mixed with government.

Rabble-rousers or community stewards?
The two civil liberties groups that filed the lawsuit on the behalf of local plaintiffs don’t believe it’s up to the community to decide.

“I think what you’re dealing with is a small group of rabble-rousers that only want to live with people who live as they do. My answer to that is go to a private school, go to a parochial school; don’t go to a public school,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the West Virginia ACLU.

That doesn’t impress Pattae Kinney, who says she doesn’t understand why her daughter’s school is being singled out.

“My take on this is that our country was founded on Christian principles. It’s on our money — ’In God We Trust’ — it’s in our Pledge of Allegiance, it’s a part of our lives,” Kinney said. “I know our community and we’re very in favor of keeping this painting.”