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Board Says Jesus Will Stay on Wall Despite ACLU Suit

November 17, 1992

BLOOMINGDALE, Mich. (AP) _ The school board in this farming community decided to fight a lawsuit filed by a student and his mother who object to a painting of Jesus that’s been hanging in the high school for at least 30 years.

The board decided to take the stance - and the offer of free legal defense -after a public hearing in which community members gave strong support to keeping the picture right where it is in the Bloomingdale High School hallway.

″The board feels that it and the residents have the right to place in their school things that they hold of value,″ board President James Dickerson said after the hearing Monday. The district northwest of Kalamazoo is home to about 2,800 people.

″This is their school to also have freedom to put something up there that they want,″ Dickerson said, ″ ... as long as it is something that is positive and valued and important.″

Eric Pensinger, 17 and a senior, and his mother, Dott Washegesic, asked the painting be removed in their lawsuit filed Oct. 29 in U.S. District Court in Kalamazoo. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing them.

The lawsuit claims that displaying a picture of Jesus amounts to a school endorsement of Christianity, thus violating the requirement that the government not get involved in religion.

Pensinger has said he first objected to the picture several months ago, taking offense at what he alleged was the school’s effort to influence his religious beliefs by displaying the painting.

Neither Pensinger nor his mother have ever disclosed their religious beliefs, if any. There are no telephone listings for them and their ACLU lawyer was not immediately available Tuesday.

Howard Simon, executive director of the Michigan ACLU, said Tuesday the student and his mother filed the lawsuit after asking the school to remove the picture to no avail.

Once the school district’s response is filed, a date for a court hearing will be set, possibly in December, Simon said.

After the public hearing Monday, the school board voted 6-0 to accept the free services of David Melton, an attorney from the Rutherford Institute, a non-profit group based in Charlottesville, Va., that defends schools facing government-religion lawuits.

″Eric is not the only student here who believes that picture should go down,″ student Stacey Bowler said at the hearing. Hers was a minority voice, however. Most who spoke said they wanted the school board to fight to keep the picture.

″I encourage you to stand for this community and hang in there and don’t worry about the outfall of this, because you’re standing up for what is right,″ said resident Duane Snyder.

″What really bothers me is that people who don’t understand that (if) we don’t start fighting back for our rights, we aren’t going to have any,″ said another, Joy Garrison.

In a similar case, the Lansing Board of Education on Nov. 5 told principals to remove religious paintings from public schools after students at Eastern High School complained about such pictures in the school foyer.

Some students approached the school board after Eastern officials had refused to take down the picture.

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