Jesus of Bridgeport trial set

by John O'Brien |
Aug. 16, 2006, 4:10pm

This picture of Jesus has been hanging in a hallway at Bridgeport High School for about 40 years.

CLARKSBURG - Richard Katskee, like a lot of other people, was told when he was a kid not to make a blow things out of proportion.

"It brings to mind, back in your childhood, when you were told, 'Don't make a federal case out of it. Just do the right thing,'" he said.

He now has a federal case on his hands, and thinks his opponent should have listened to that advice.

Katskee, an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Chuch and State, is getting ready for a battle against the Harrison County Board of Education over a picture that has been hanging in a hallway at Bridgeport High School for approximately 40 years.

Warner Sallman's "Head of Christ" has been the subject of much debate over the past several months, and Katskee thinks the Board has an indefensible position to defense.

"I think the defense counsel sees it the same way," he said.

So much so that, despite having several offers for free legal aid from various religious group, the school board already has come up with a plan to pay the plaintiffs attorneys if and when it is ruled against.

The board says it will spend $150,000 that was donated.

"The way I read and understand the establishment clause law (separating religion and state), there is no basis to decide against us," Katskee said.

Harrison County residents Harold Sklar and Jacklyn McKenzie are the plaintiffs on a suit filed June 28 by the AUSCS and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia. The case is in Clarksburg's federal court for the Northern District of West Virginia.

Judge Irene Keeley is presiding over the case, which will be brought to trial in February.

Keeley, though, ruled against the plaintiffs' Motion to Expedite Discovery. Katskee said he had hoped to quickly present enough evidence that a preliminary injunction removing the portrait would be appropriate. Sklar, a Jewish lawyer, is worried that his daughter will be treated harshly when she starts at Bridgeport Aug. 28.

The Harrison Board has voted twice to keep the portrait hanging, and of the $150,000 raised for plaintiffs attorneys fees, $6,700 was reportedly raised by Bridgeport students.

Katskee says it is money that could have been better spent, and says several letters have been written to the school board pleading with it to take down the portrait in order to avoid a trial.

"The law is absolutely clear here, but sometimes people need to fight a battle and lose themselves to find out," he said. "That's the mistake this board is making."

U.S. District Court case number 1106-CV-103

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