Skirting the Establishment Clause

The US Supreme Court has made it quite clear that public schools cannot take a stand one way or another in favor of or against religion. This means that the school administrators and teachers, who are seen as agents of the government, cannot be seen as promoting any or all religions or no religion. Strict neutrality is what is called for.

However, the courts have tended to be more lenient with allowing students to voluntarily express their religious views and feelings, since such actions would not constitute an official endorsement of religion. Via reader Ahcuah, I learned of an effort by a school district to use that as a loophole to continue to display a portrait of Jesus.

The Jackson City Schools in southeastern Ohio has had a portrait of Jesus hanging in its hallway for 66 years. This was challenged recently but the school board voted 4-0 to keep it, claiming that it belongs to a student group and that it hangs in an area where students are free to post other portraits and hence this is not an official endorsement of Jesus by the school.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU have, on behalf of a student and two parents (all unidentified), filed a lawsuit in the US District Court in Columbus.

I think the outcome of this case will hinge on three things: the history of the portrait, the nature of the space where it hangs, and whether the portrait of Jesus dominates the space. In the case of the first, it will depend on whether the school district was involved in the original hanging or the aftermath and is now hiding behind students to skirt the Establishment Clause. In the second, it will depend on whether the space where it hangs is truly neutral and would allow students to hang portraits of Krishna and icons of other religions or even anti-religious statements. And the third will depend won whether it is a large portrait that dominates the space or whether it is just another image surrounded by many images of similar size and impact that may not be noticed by someone casually walking by.

It should be an interesting case.


  1. says

    the school district was involved in the original hanging or the aftermath and is now hiding behind students to skirt the Establishment Clause

    They’d be big, brave, defenders of the faith, if they were doing that!

  2. Jared A says

    Cowardly hiding behind “student initiative” is what my high school did all the time. Before an orchestral winds concert a student would always “spontaneously” get up and say a prayer. Somehow our teacher always knew when to pause to allow this, and the student always came from his inner circle of acolytes. And of course, they always came from the same religion. So yeah, it was an open secret that the teacher was picking them.

    Even if it was truly a student initiative (though I know that it wasn’t), it was wrong to let it happen that way. For one, it made lots of people uncomfortable, for another it set the tone that in order to be a member of the officially sanctioned clique you had to belong to the proper group.

  3. embraceyourinnercrone says

    @2 Jared A -- I don’t even like the “it’s a student initiative” excuse. Its a public school, its a school function why does someone get to stand up and use it as a bully pulpit for their religion. People came to hear a concert, NOT be preached at. No one is stopping the student from saying a little prayer for a good performance to themselves but ,there is a difference between that and standing up and announcing your prayer to the whole audience. Just because they are a student not an employee of the school/city doesn’t mean they should be able to smack everyone else in the face with their religion at a school function

    … aannnd now I have Ray Stevens “Mississippi Squirrel Revival playing nonstop in my head, arrgh. Probably because of this part:

    “All the way down to the Amen Pew,
    Where sat Sister Bertha Better-Than-You,
    Who’d been watching all the commotion with sadistic glee”

  4. richardrobinson says

    Since it’s apparently permissible for someone to stand up and break into prayer during these events, I suggest you do so and find folks of other faiths to participate as well.

  5. Jared A says

    @innercrone and Marcus

    I absolutely agree on all points. In the example I gave (which was the tip of the iceberg), the prayer was given in the classroom before going out onto the stage so that the parents didn’t have to see it. To me this actually made it all the more insidious than the full assembly-hall style prayer. Like it was a secret, naughty thing we were doing together. It really made me fill icky.

    Some people tried various things to get this type of shit to stop, but it’s harder than you think. Cthulhu wasn’t in vogue at the time, but some people tried various similar blasphemies and other things. I remember once the 1st chair clarinetist (also president of the ACLU club) interrupted a prayer with some sort of chant about separation of church and state. None of this had much of an effect. The religiously complicit students made up the majority and they were extremely efficient at shutting the dissenters up. And really, even if you’re very uncomfortable, it’s takes a lot of courage to go against your friends and classmates as pugnaciously as you must. You could try escalating, but of course the teacher was behind it, and the school principal was complicit, too. Not only that, but this band teacher was very well respected state-wide, so you know there’s that. You will be stigmatized for “ruining it for everyone”.

    As you said, it was really just bullying, pure and simple. A bunch of fucking self-righteous cowards.

  6. Jared A says

    See below. Yes, I wish I had tried harder, but with the majority of the community (the affluent majority) complicit the only way to get any change is by a) threatening to litigate, b) litigating or c) first getting suspended for asserting your rights and then litigating. I just wasn’t brave enough. Oh, and I should say: I belonged to the religion in question at first, it still made me uncomfortable. After a few years I was breaking away (messily), which made any assertion of my rights on the front tangled up with other battles in my life.

    Messy messy teenagehood. This is one of the many reasons schools should rigorously enforce their neutrality: to make them a safer place for children to grow.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I agree that it is very hard for young people to go against the crowd. I really admire the courage of those who do and we have to support them. I don’t think I would have had the nerve at that age.

  8. twosheds1 says

    One that has always boggled my mind is that Christians seem to be oblivious how classless and undignified they seem when they act in this way. Or with the seeming competition to see how many Jesus bumper stickers they can fit on their car. Getting up a reciting a prayer in the middle of a performance is the same thing. Isn’t their faith better than that? And isn’t there something in the Bible about praying in private?

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