SLIDELL, La. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Slidell City Court July 3 after a judge refused its demand to remove a portrait of Jesus hanging in the city courthouse lobby.
The ACLU, which filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, was also seeking the removal of a message below the painting that reads, "To Know Peace, Obey These Laws."
"We did not file this lawsuit because the ACLU is anti-religion ... We did file this lawsuit because we believe this display is clearly in violation of the law," Vincent Booth, president and acting executive director of the Louisiana ACLU chapter, told the Associated Press.
In its filing, the ACLU wrote that "a reasonable observer looking upon this display, which shows Jesus Christ presenting the New Testament, above the words "To know Peace, Obey these Laws," could understand its message to be an endorsement of the Christian faith, to the detriment of all other religious beliefs, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and atheism."
The complaint also alleges the plaintiffs were harmed by viewing the painting.
"Plaintiffs came into direct and unwelcome contact with the display and were offended by it. They were intimidated and were both afraid and reluctant to voice their objections with respect to this constitutional transgression, fearful of retaliation," the complaint continued.
Slidell Judge Jim Lamz, also named as a defendant, disagrees that the painting violates the Establishment Clause and said June 30 that the ACLU is using bullying tactics to intimidate himbut that he's ready for the suit. Lamz said the portrait would stay unless a federal judge orders it removed.
"Due to the display's historical place in the courthouse, I explored options to obtain a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of the display without an adversarial court battle," he said. "I could find none."
Supporters claim that the portrait, which has been on display since the building opened in 1997, has never posed a problem and fairly represents the majority of residents in their largely Christian community.
Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, called the ACLU's complaint "mind-boggling." Johnson and ADF are representing the city pro bono.
"The First Amendment allows public officials, and not the ACLU, to decide what is appropriate for acknowledging our nation's religious history and heritage," he said. "The ideas expressed in this painting aren't specific to any one faith, and they certainly don't establish a single state religion."
The painting, Johnson said, delivers an inclusive message of equal justice under the law.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, "Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.… Examples of monuments and buildings reflecting the prominent role of religion abound."
The ruling cited memorials to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, which all contain explicit invocations of God's importance.
"The reason Americans enjoy equal justice is because we are all 'created equal, endowed by (our) Creator with certain unalienable rights,'" Johnson said. "This painting is a clear reflection of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence."
BP taff and wire report