W.Va. board abandons fight for Christ portrait

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A West Virginia school board voted yesterday to drop its defense of a lawsuit, clearing the way for a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations that sought to remove a portrait of Jesus from Bridgeport High School.

Neither side would disclose terms of the agreement reached yesterday. They said it would be filed Monday before U.S. District Judge Irene M. Keeley.

The agreement was reached after the Harrison County Board of Education, in 4-1 vote yesterday, agreed to drop its defense of the lawsuit filed earlier this year by the ACLU of West Virginia and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Board member Michael L. Queen, who had been a leader of a local campaign to keep the portrait, cast the lone dissenting vote but said he will support the board's decision.

The lawsuit concerned a copy of artist Warner Sallman's well-known "Head of Christ'' that had hung for 37 years near the principal's office in the school in Bridgeport, a city of about 7,300 people near Clarksburg, W.Va. The dispute triggered local controversy and attracted national attention.

The ACLU and Americans United sued on behalf of two Bridgeport residents, charging that the portrait's presence in a public school was unconstitutional, offensive and an endorsement of Christianity over other faiths in an increasingly diverse community.

The board of education initially pledged to fight to keep the portrait in the school with help from the Alliance Defense Fund, a national organization that litigates for Christian causes. But a thief broke into the school in August and stole the portrait, which has not been recovered.

Board members said the theft made the lawsuit moot, prompting board members to seek its dismissal last month. The ACLU also had offered to withdraw the lawsuit and seek no fees if the board agreed to post no other artwork depicting Jesus or religious leaders or events.

Since then, both sides have been working out terms of a settlement.

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.


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