Justice won't let school display portrait of Jesus

March 01, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A Supreme Court justice refused yesterday to let a Michigan public high school display a famous portrait of Jesus Christ, at least until the full court rules otherwise.

The portrait, which hung for 30 years in a school hallway, has been ruled unconstitutional by lower courts.

Justice John Paul Stevens made no comment as he turned aside the plea by the Bloomingdale school board and the school district, which is about 20 miles from Kalamazoo.

The portrait, a print of the Warner Sallman painting "Head of Christ," was taken down a week ago, after being covered for nearly two years by a velvet cloth in the school colors, red and white. A federal judge had ordered the cover put on while the legal dispute moved through appeals courts.

The judge later said the painting had to be removed. School officials did so. Afterward, according to the school board's lawyers, officials put the velvet covering back up on the empty wall space where the portrait had been. Students who had lapel pins made with the portrait on them then stuck many of them to the covering, the lawyers said.

The Sallman painting, which lower courts said had been reprinted tens of millions of times, had gone unchallenged until three years ago. At that time, a student said he was offended because it appeared to be an endorsement by the school of Christianity.

A federal judge, and then a federal appeals court, decided that the portrait, which was displayed alone except for a nearby trophy case and a wall painting of the school mascot, a cardinal, violated the Supreme Court's constitutional bar against government support of religion.

One of the board's attorneys, Anne-Marie Amiel of the Rutherford Institute, defended the portrait yesterday as "a work of art, a historical painting with religious significance," and not a religious object. She noted that the Sallman portrait shows Christ in a head-and-shoulders view, with no halo above his head.

Although the attorneys can ask the full Supreme Court to consider the plea to replace the portrait, Ms. Amiel said they had not decided on that.

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