Settlement offered but no resolution yet in religious portrait case

By John O'Brien | Sep 7, 2006

Until it was stolen last month, this picture of Jesus has been hanging in a hallway at Bridgeport High School for about 40 years.

CHARLESTON - Just when the issue finally appeared dead, Jesus of Bridgeport found a way to resurrect himself.

Despite reports that a settlement had been reached in the federal lawsuit against Bridgeport High School concerning a now-stolen portrait of Jesus Christ, attorney Rodney Bean says the case is still proceeding normally.

"There is a resolution by the (Harrison County School Board) that if the portrait is recovered, they won't put it up," said Rodney Bean, who is working as a local defense attorney from his Steptoe and Johnson office in Morgantown. "But there's been reporting that we've accepted a settlement offer from the plaintiffs, and that has not happened.

"That's not true."

While a settlement has been offered, Bean said nothing has been accepted by the defense.

In fact, Judge Irene Keeley on Wednesday approved the Applications for Admission Pro Hac Vice of Nathan Kellum, Gary McCaleb and Benjamin Bull of the Allied Defense Fund, giving the out-of-state attorneys permission to enter the case.

How long the case will last, though, is anybody's guess, considering the school board voted to keep Warner Sallman's "Head of Christ" out of the Bridgeport halls if it is recovered. Surveillance tapes show a while male weighing between 220-250 pounds stealing the picture on Aug. 17.

The federal lawsuit was filed June 28 in District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia by plaintiffs Harold Sklar and Jacqueline McKenzie, who sought to have the picture taken down. They claimed it violated the separation of religion and state and were joined in their quest by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.

The board voted twice to fight the lawsuit and is receiving free defense from the Allied Defense Fund. It has also raised approximately $150,000 for plaintiffs lawyers fees if they must pay them in the future.

The issue appeared to be reaching a conclusion before a February trial when the board voted that even if the portrait is recovered, it will not be hung.

However, students gave incoming principal Mark DeFazio a mirror with the inscription "... to know the will of God is the highest of all wisdoms, the love of Jesus Christ lives within all of us."

On the advice of its legal team, the board had the mirror taken down. It hung for only three-and-a-half hours Sept. 1.

The mirror was a gift from the Christian Freedom Alliance, a student group that helped raise $6,700 to fight the lawsuit.

Bean says the defense is currently weighing a settlement proposal submitted by the plaintiffs attorneys.

"The resolution didn't reach the issue of the mirror," he said.

Considering the portrait of Jesus hung in the hall for almost 40 years despite repeated complaints, it's not surprising the lawsuit has proved just as resilient.

"It's not over with at this point," Bean said. "There's been nothing filed in court that would lead to dismissal. As far as the court's concerned, it's going on like it always would.

"I don't think I've ever been involved in a case so bizarre. I'm sure it'll take a few more twists and turns."

U.S. District Court case number 1:06-CV-103

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