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Ohio School District Will Remove Jesus Portrait

(CN) - An Ohio school district can pay $95,000 to settle claims over a portrait of Jesus it prominently displayed in the middle and high schools, a federal judge ruled.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the Jackson City School District in Jackson, Ohio, earlier this year. The complaint said that a portrait of Jesus initially displayed near the entrance of the Jackson Middle School "has the effect of advancing and endorsing one religion, improperly entangling the State in religious affairs, and violating the personal consciences of plaintiffs," two students identified as Sam Does 1 through 5.

It was later moved to the district's high school.

About a month before the lawsuit was filed in the federal court in Columbus, Ohio, Rebecca Markert, a staff attorney with the Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote a letter of complaint to the district on behalf of parents with students in the school.

According to the FFRF, the letter was publicly rebuffed by Superintendent Phil Howard who declared "it would take a court order to remove the picture."

James Hardiman of the Ohio ACLU then filed the suit, claiming the display of the portrait violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the 14th Amendment, and also the Constitution of the State of Ohio.

The consent decree approved by U.S. District Judge Algernon Marbley mandates the permanent removal of the portrait from school grounds. A financial settlement that's part of the agreement also requires the school to pay the plaintiffs a combination of damages and legal fees totaling $95,000.

Of that total, $15,000 will be divided equally between the five Sam Does, and $80,000 will be paid to the attorneys.

In a written statement, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the organization is "pleased that the plaintiffs - parents and students - whose identities will be protected, will each receive 43,000 in claims and damages. It's just and appropriate that students and parents who risk public exposure amid threats of retaliation for speaking up for the First Amendment should receive damages and that public school officials who violate the First Amendment be held accountable."

A spokesman for the school district could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

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