Monday, September 04, 2006


Jesus Has Left the Building

Common sense may not have returned to Bridgeport, West Virginia but economic and legal reality has made an appearance, if only a temporary one.

As you may remember, a reproduction of a portrait of Jesus so saccharin that it should have been removed simply as a danger to hypoglycemic students, had hung for decades in the local high school, first in a counselor's office and then in a main hallway just outside the principal's office. All was well as long as just about the only person complaining was a local Jewish lawyer, who could be safely ignored. But eventually the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State got involved and a suit followed.

Much of the local populace and the majority of the school board noisily promised an all-out fight in the courts, despite the board's regular attorney delivering a rather public opinion that chances of successfully defending the suit were extremely slim. $150,000 was raised to pay for any damages and the offer of a free defense from the Alliance Defense Fund was accepted.

Then the portrait was stolen. The board members supporting the fight said it would go on, holding out the possibility of obtaining a replacement (the cost of that would be the least of their financial problems if it came to that) and the plaintiffs were willing to go ahead. As long as it was possible for the portrait to be hung again, the case would not be moot.

After meeting with their attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, board of education members voted Thursday to seek the dismissal of the lawsuit because the theft had made it moot.

Michael Queen, the father of an 11-year-old boy and a leader of Bridgeport's keep-the-portrait movement, said alliance attorneys explained it would not be possible to defend the presence of a portrait that no longer hangs in the school.
Other than serving as a face-saving device, the theft had nothing to do with seeking to drop the suit. The real reason is that, to its credit, the Alliance Defense Fund must have looked at the situation, including some of the more ridiculous statements by the board members and others, and decided that even making a political point was no justification for allowing these legal lambs to rush to their own slaughter.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia, said attorneys for [the plaintiffs] Mr. Sklar and Ms. McKenzie have offered to withdraw the lawsuit and seek no fees if the board agrees to post no other artwork depicting Jesus or religious leaders or events.

If the portrait ever turns up, the board will not hang it in its former spot, [board member Michael] Queen said Friday. But he said he did not believe the board would agree to everything the ACLU requested.
And, ominously enough:

. . . on Friday, students who helped to raise money to defend the lawsuit presented incoming high school Principal Mark DeFazio with a framed mirror to hang where the portrait had been. The mirror's inscription reads: "To know the will of God is the highest of all wisdom. The love of Jesus Christ lives within each of us" -- an inscription that Mr. Schneider said is also inappropriate for a public school.
Mr. Queen also said that he "expects the board will consider establishing a comparative religions class and will draft policies to guide students and employees on posting or displaying religious items in schools." Obviously, such moves present ripe opportunities for further disasters, constitutionally speaking. Mr. Queen seems incapable of doing anything but kicking dreamy canines:

"This particular case cannot go forward. I'm disappointed that someone's been able to keep us from having our day in court, but we're moving forward with a strategy. We're moving forward with the merits of addressing Christianity in schools."

Should that happen, or should the inscription remain on the mirror when it is placed in the school, Mr. Schneider said, "The case lives on."
I said before that common sense had not returned to the town but that isn't quite true. Despite the usual bleats about the Pledge of Allegiance being next to be removed and the supposed conspiracy to "take God out of everything," there was some good sense there anyway:

"People say, 'What Would Jesus Do?' Well, I don't think he would be running up court costs," said Anna Smucker, 58, of Bridgeport, a former children's librarian who now writes children's books. "I think he would be appalled at all the anger.
Amen to that!

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