ACLU Claims Victory But Jesus Pix Still Hangs in Courthouse

Penny Starr | Senior Staff Writer | Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ACLU Claims Victory But Jesus Pix Still Hangs in Courthouse

( - U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle sided with the American Civil Liberties Union, ruling that a painting of Jesus that hangs in the courthouse in Slidell, La., is unconstitutional.

But some experts say the case is unique, because the picture is still on display, joined now by more than a dozen other images of historic lawmaking figures, and there are no plans to remove the image.

"This is the first case I know of that upholds a display of a picture of Jesus," Douglas Laycock, professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan Law School, told Cybercast News Service. "It is significant."

Laycock also weighed in on the case when the ACLU first sued the city of Slidell, city Judge Jim Lamz and the parish of St. Tammany in July 2007 - Judge Lemelle issued his ruling last week. Lamz consulted with Laycock on whether or not he should comply with the ACLU's request to take the painting down or face a lawsuit.

The ACLU said plaintiff "John Doe" and others "have suffered, or shall suffer, damages, including mental anguish and emotional distress" from viewing the image.

Laycock advised Lamz that he didn't think the ACLU had an open-and-shut case.

"It's a prediction of how the courts will rule," Laycock said. "The courts don't see this issue as clear cut."

The ruling is significant because of the $1 in damages awarded to the ACLU, Laycock said. "The judge wasn't persuaded by that 'trauma' if he only awarded a dollar," he said.

Michael Johnson, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian legal group that defended the city in the lawsuit, told Cybercast News Service that while the ADF is "disappointed" with the ruling, he doesn't see it as a win for the ACLU.

"It's such a hollow victory," Johnson said. "The ACLU is proclaiming a win, but they really didn't accomplish anything. Their objective was to get the Jesus picture taken down, and it's still prominently displayed."

Lemelle gave the ACLU 10 days to submit a report of its legal expenses in the case, which Johnson said his group might appeal.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of ACLU Louisiana, disagreed that the ruling isn't a win.

"We were absolutely victorious," Esman told Cybercast News Service. "The court ruled very clearly that the initial display was a violation of the Constitution. The city of Slidell changed (the display) at the last minute."

The display was changed before the first hearing in the case last September. Lamz and other city officials decided to add images based on the frieze decorating the U.S. Supreme Court, which features historic legal figures, including Hammurabi, Moses, Confucius, Muhammad, Charlemagne and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Slidell Courthouse display added 15 historic lawmakers. It has one figure, however, that can't be found on the walls of the nation's highest courthouse: Jesus Christ.

The case has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the residents of Slidell, who are still recovering from extensive damage and destruction done when the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed over the city.

Most of the city's government buildings were destroyed, and many departments remain housed in FEMA trailers today. Ann Barks, spokeswoman for the city, said repairs to the courthouse, which was first opened in 1997, are almost complete.

"You can see why the community was not thrilled with all this going on and the ACLU came around being bullies,"" Barks told Cybercast News Service.

The Jesus picture, she said, was installed more than 10 years ago by the sitting judge at the time, Jim Strain, Jr., who is purported to have purchased it at a yard sale. She said that while the portrait is of Jesus, it was not put up for religious reasons.

"It was put up there to encourage people in the community to follow the law," Barks said.

Barks and others - including Slidell Mayor Ben Morris - said the small painting, which measures 24 by 24 inches, was hung high on a wall and in the 10 years since Strain hung the picture, it's mostly gone unnoticed.

"I've been in and out of the courthouse many times and never even knew it was there," said Morris, who served as chief of police for 12 years before taking the mayoral post.

Morris called the ACLU "the American Taliban" and was highly critical of the lawsuit.

"I respectfully disagree with the judge," Morris told Cybercast News Service. "I find (the ACLU) to be the most vile group that exists in America."

Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the ACLU vs. Slidell case is like others focusing on whether a public institution is violating the First Amendment, which reads:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Pilon said it was "perfectly clear" that the solitary portrait of Jesus in the Slidell Courthouse violated the First Amendment, adding that he didn't see much significance in the fact that Christ is still a part of the now more secular display.

"The argument being that once the display is broadened, it takes on a different color and therefore the 'anguish' (of the plaintiffs) dissipates," Pilon said. "There's not a great deal in the way of precedent in these kinds of cases. They are very fact-dependent, which is why they come up for adjudication so often."

Esman said she never wanted to see the case go to court.

"(The case) never should have gone to litigation," Esman said. "We asked them to take (the Jesus picture) down, and they refused. They invited us to file a lawsuit, and now the taxpayers of Slidell are going to get stuck with the bill."

But Johnson said the suit is typical of the kind of case embraced by the ACLU.

"Unfortunately, the ACLU is on a search-and-destroy mission for all those symbols of the deep religious heritage of our country," Johnson said.

Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.

E-mail a comment or news tip to Penny Starr