U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit alleging that a lone painting of Jesus in the Slidell, Louisiana courthouse is unconstitutional, Cybercast News Service reports.
However, the picture remains on display.
The image is now flanked by images based on the frieze of the United States Supreme Court, which includes other historic figures such as Hammurabi, Moses, Confucius, Mohammed, Charlemagne, and Napoleon Bonaparte. The modified display is expected to pass constitutional requirements.
Some experts said the case is unique because the picture of Jesus is still on display.
“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, said to Cybercast News Service. "It is significant."
The ACLU had argued that the plaintiffs, “John Doe” and others, "have suffered, or shall suffer, damages, including mental anguish and emotional distress" from viewing the image.”
Judge Lemelle awarded only $1 in damages, which Laycock said was significant. "The judge wasn't persuaded by that 'trauma' if he only awarded a dollar," he said. The city will also have to pay the ACLU’s legal expenses.
Michael Johnson, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group that defended the city, said the ADF is “disappointed” with the ruling, but called it a “shallow victory” for the ACLU.
“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," Johnson said.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of ACLU Louisiana, said her organization was “absolutely victorious.” She 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."
Esman said the case never should have gone to litigation, saying the city refused to take the picture down after being asked. “They invited us to file a lawsuit, and now the taxpayers of Slidell are going to get stuck with the bill,” she said.
Roger Pilon, vice-president of the libertarian Cato Institute, said the Jesus picture was a “perfectly clear” violation of the First Amendment. He said he did not see a significant difference in the picture’s inclusion in a more secular display.
Slidell, Louisiana is still recovering from the destruction created by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Most of the city’s government buildings were destroyed, and many departments are still housed in FEMA trailers.
"You can see why the community was not thrilled with all this going on and the ACLU came around being bullies," city spokeswoman Ann Barks said to Cybercast News Service. She said the picture of Jesus was installed more than 10 years ago by a judge who reportedly purchased it at a yard sale. According to Sparks, the picture was not displayed for religious reasons.
"It was put up there to encourage people in the community to follow the law,” she said.
Slidell Mayor Ben Morris said the painting, which measures 24 by 24 inches and was hung high on a wall, was usually not noticed.
"I've been in and out of the courthouse many times and never even knew it was there," Morris said. He said he “respectfully” disagreed with the judge, and called the ACLU the “American Taliban” and “the most vile group that exists in America.”