The painting of Jesus Christ had hung in the school entrance over the door for 76 years, across from a “Hall of Honor” portrait collection recognizing famous historical figures. Thousands of Jackson, Ohio, school students for generations walked under The Savior’s likeness, perhaps never noticing but certainly not worse from being exposed to the artwork.
Many of those kids probably did, from time-to-time, look up and take comfort in the fact that their Appalachian community reserved the place of highest honor for the man on whom the Christian religion was based. It was indeed a Hall of Honor in both an historical and spiritual sense.
But the age-darkened portrait has been removed, never to return to its former place. The school system that allowed the religious image to hang on a wall for almost eight decades was forced to take it down in a court action brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Freedom From Religion Foundation.
In a settlement, the school board agreed to pay $95,000, in addition to permanently banning religious images from property bought and paid for by generations of taxpayers who saw nothing shameful in the face of Jesus whether they attended a church or not.
I lived only 30 miles from Jackson before a recent relocation brought me home to Tennessee. It’s a blue collar community of honest working people, proud of their Ironmen high school football team and home to an annual apple festival -- one of the largest in the state.
Church spires rise from the downtown area: Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Church of God, Church of Christ, all the major and minor denominations. On Sunday mornings, radio stations broadcast gospel music and church services.
Civic club meetings start with prayer -- ditto for gatherings of outdoorsmen: the wild turkey hunters, deer hunters and duck hunters. I know, because I once belonged to these sportsmen’s organizations.
The bottom line is that Jackson, Ohio, like much of Appalachia north and south of the Mason Dixon line, is religious. No wonder it took 76 years and pressure from radical organizations to force the removal of a portrait that no one born, raised or living in the community ever thought objectionable or in conflict with the U.S. Constitution.
If there was an offense committed against Americans it was done so by a U.S. district court and the plaintiffs. They abrogated the rights of those in the Jackson community with the spurious claim that somehow display of an artist’s rendering of the Face of Christ is a bad thing on public property.
In the same vein, a Tennessee board of education must decide whether parent-teacher organizations (P-TOs) can hold group prayer at the start of meetings. The same Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation that succeeded in forcing the removal of Christ’s portrait in Ohio contacted the Franklin County School Board about the practice of P-TOs starting their meetings with prayer. Apparently, school officials felt that this was a shot across the bows, preceding litigation. They are probably correct.
Ironically, Franklin County is part of the area of southern Middle Tennessee that I now call home. Local newspapers carried articles about the controversy, which resulted in the school board issuing an advisory to P-TOs to observe a moment of silence instead of prayer.
A recent board meeting drew a crowd of 300. Most of the folks were there to voice their opinion on the prayer issue. Although it may have been a symbolic gesture -- given the success of atheists and so-called civil liberties groups in forcing public displays of religion from taxpayer-supported institutions -- the majority of those in attendance prayed aloud.
A week later, the school board did a wise and circumspect thing, in my opinion. It did not involve knuckling under. The policy concerning P-TOs was amended to allow prayer, based on the recognition that such support groups are not “school-sponsored or student-initiated.” P-TOs are independent, and the board voted, 7-1, to declare this part of official policy.
In hindsight, I wonder if the Jackson, Ohio, board of education had officially declared the portrait of Jesus a work of art, no more or less than a reproduction of Da Vinci’s painting of Christ in “The Last Supper,” whether the Freedom From Religion Foundation would have been flummoxed? It’s just a thought . . .
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.