SLIDELL, La. (RNS) A portrait of Jesus Christ that hangs in the lobby of Slidell City Court violates the separation of church and state, according to a a federal lawsuit that was filed Tuesday (July 3) by the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union.
The organization filed the suit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans after court officials decided to reject the ACLU’s deadline and leave the portrait in place.
Vincent Booth, acting executive director and board president for the ACLU chapter, said after filing the suit that he thinks the portrait, along with lettering beneath that says, “To know peace, obey these laws,” violates laws upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
City Court Judge Jim Lamz, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said Saturday he consulted with a constitutional scholar at the University of Michigan before concluding that the display’s constitutionality remains an open legal question.
Lamz declined to comment further Tuesday, saying through a spokeswoman that he is forbidden to speak about pending litigation. He referred questions to Mike Johnson, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that has agreed to represent the city court for free.
Johnson, who is based in Shreveport, did not return a call for comment, but he did release a statement.
“The ideas expressed in this painting aren’t specific to any one faith, and they certainly don’t establish a single state religion,” he said in the statement. “The reason Americans enjoy equal justice is because we are all created equal, endowed by (our) creator with certain unalienable rights. This painting is a clear reflection of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence.”
The ACLU is representing an anonymous complainant who said he has come into “direct and unwelcome contact” with the display, and he expects to do so again to fulfill legal obligations at the court. The display hangs in the court’s lobby, which has only one main entrance for visitors, according to the lawsuit.
The display has been in place since the courthouse opened in 1997 and has been maintained with taxpayer money, the lawsuit says. The display endorses the Christian faith, or specifically the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, to the detriment of all other Christian denominations and all non-Christian religions, according to the suit.
By Christine Harvey
Religion News Service