With vocal backing from the community, the Jackson City Schools Board of Education at first rejected the idea of removing a popular portrait of Jesus that had hung in a school building since 1947. The controversy surfaced after the Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the small, Appalachian district on behalf of a student and two parents.
As in similar cases that have brought national attention, the plaintiffs called the portrait an unconstitutional promotion of religion in a public school. The school board countered, arguing that removing it would infringe on the freedom of speech of the student group that donated it.
Fortunately, the district reconsidered, voluntarily agreeing during a court hearing last week to take the portrait down. The district’s insurance company said it would not cover the cost of litigation. In the end, the board and superintendent saw the issue clearly, wisely realizing that the cost of a prolonged lawsuit would only deprive students of the resources needed to learn.
Freedom of expression and freedom of religion were in no way under attack in the Jackson City Schools. The First Amendment, as interpreted in case after case, is about protecting the right of all citizens to worship as they see fit. The sound doctrine of the separation of church and state is designed to prevent the state from promoting one particular faith over others.
Many of the founders were, indeed, deeply religious. But they were determined not to let anyone, particularly the government, trample on their right to practice religion as they saw fit. Last week, the Jackson City Schools relearned that history.