"Jesus" Picture Unconstitutional

On Tuesday, September 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati upheld a lower court opinion that the prominent display of a portrait of the religious character Jesus in a public school is unconstitutional.

At issue was a student's objection to a 2 by 3 foot reproduction of Warner Sallman's _Head of Christ_ on display in a Bloomingdale, Michigan public school building. The painting was bolted to a wall outside the principal's office of the junior-high/high-school building, in such a position that it could be seen throughout the main hallway. The student, Eric Pensinger, sued the school in October 1992. He stated that he, as an atheist, was deeply offended by the picture. The ACLU sued on behalf of young Eric Pensinger and his mother Dott Washegesic.

School authorities maintained that the display of the Jesus picture had a secular function: to honor a historical character. It was, however, the only portrait in the hallway. The school board was represented in the case by the Rutherford Institute, a conservative thinktank. The Jesus picture had been on display in the school since 1962. Prior to that, it had hung in another school.

In February 1993, a federal district judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ruled that the display of the _Head of Christ_ was in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. In his decision, he noted that:

"The primary effect of the school's display of the picture is to advance religion in general and Christianity in particular."

The district judge also rejected the school's claim that the picture was an "expression of freedom of speech."

In upholding the decision, the 6th Circuit Court stated the portrait:

"is moving for many of us brought up in the Christian faith, but that is the problem. . . . Christ is central only to Christianity, and his portrait has a proselytizing, affirming effect that some non-believers find deeply offensive."

The 6th Circuit Court rejected the school's arguments that the display of the picture was justified by the tradition of its display and that the case should be dismissed because the student had graduated.

The case may not be over yet. The school may ask the 6th Circuit to reconsider its decision or it may appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Warner Sallman portrait of Jesus is believed to be the most widely reproduced picture of J.C. in history. More than 500 million copies of it have been made in Bibles, religious publications, posters, clocks, pins, etc. since the evangelical Christian illustrator executed it in 1940. It depicts a blue-eyed J.C. with light brown hair and Anglo-Saxon facial features.

The courage of young Mr. Pensinger, the student who objected to the display, must be applauded. Bloomingdale is a rural community of 500 in 30 miles west of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The social pressures against him would have been tremendous. He is a good example to all the Atheists[sic] in the closet out there.

Sources: UPI 9/6/94, February 1993 American Atheist Newsletter