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Justices Let Stand Rulings That Removed Jesus Portrait from School

May 1, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today let stand rulings that forced a Michigan high school to take down a portrait of Jesus Christ that had been displayed on a hallway wall for 30 years.

The justices, acting without comment, refused to hear arguments by Bloomingdale, Mich., school officials that the portrait should be returned to the wall because it offers no religious message and raises no church-state problem.

A federal appeals court, in upholding a trial judge’s order for the portrait’s removal, said, ``The school’s ownership and display of the portrait endorses the Christian religion and promotes it exclusively.″

The 2-by-3-foot portrait, a print of Warner Sallman’s famous Head of Christ, had been donated to the high school in the 1960s. It hung without controversy until Eric Pensinger, who graduated in 1993, sued during his senior year.

His lawsuit said the portrait’s presence suggested that his school endorsed Christianity and that school officials considered something wrong with him for not being a Christian.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Gibson ruled for Pensinger in 1993, and the portrait was covered while school officials appealed to the 6th Circuit court. The portrait was removed after the appeals court upheld Gibson’s ruling.

``Though the portrait ... may seem de minimis (minimal) to the great majority, particularly those raised in the Christian faith and those who do not care about religion, a few see it as a governmental statement favoring one religious group and downplaying others,″ the appeals court said.

``It is the rights of these few that the Establishment Clause protects in this case,″ it added.

The Constitution’s First Amendment bans an ``establishment of religion″ _ source of the required separation of church and state.

The appeals court ruling relied, in part, on a 1980 Supreme Court decision barring public schools nationwide from posting copies of the Ten Commandments in classrooms when not integrated into any course of study.

The 6th Circuit court also relied on an often-cited 1971 Supreme Court ruling that said any law or governmental policy is unlawful if it has a religious rather than secular purpose, promotes or advances religion or results in excessive entanglement with religion.

``The display here fails all three,″ the appeals court said in the case from Bloomingdale, a rural community near Kalamazoo.

In the appeal acted on today, school authorities said the portrait is one of many works of art displayed by the town’s schools.

``Clearly, the edification of students in the great art of this and prior centuries is a secular purpose. That references to religious personages may be included is incidental to that secular purpose,″ the appeal said.

School officials also argued that the appeals court ruling should be thrown out because Pensinger’s prior graduation had made the case moot, or legally irrelevant.

The 6th Circuit court rejected that argument, saying the portrait ``potentially affects any member of the public who attends an event at the school.″

The case is Bloomingdale Public Schools vs. Washegesic, 94-1383.

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