Religion News Service
SLIDELL, La. – Napoleon, Confucius, Hammurabi and more than a dozen other historical figures have joined Jesus Christ on the wall at courthouse in a bid to reassure visitors that the court wanted nothing more than to showcase people who helped to create the laws of civilized nations.
Officials mounted the additional portraits Friday (Aug. 31), one week before a scheduled court hearing at which the Louisiana ACLU will ask a federal judge to remove the Jesus portrait.
The ACLU has sued the court, the city of Slidell, St. Tammany Parish and Judge Jim Lamz, saying the portrait and the accompanying words, “To know peace, obey these laws,” violates the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.
“The idea here is there never has been an ulterior motive, as is alleged by the ACLU,” said Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization that is representing the court.
“They wanted to erect an artistic display to emphasize the importance of following the law to maintain a peaceful society. The expanded display conveys that same message in a way that is unmistakable.”
Similar historical and educational renderings are on display in many public buildings and courthouses across the country, Johnson said from his office in Shreveport. Even the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington contain marble friezes of “great lawgivers of history,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s friezes contain 18 “historical lawgivers,”
according to the court’s Web site. The Slidell City Court’s expanded display, which also includes a framed copy of the Constitution, contains many of the same figures as those depicted on the walls of the Supreme Court.
In addition to Confucius and Hammurabi, the common figures include Moses, Charlemagne, Octavian, Louis IX and John Marshall, the longest-serving chief justice on the high court. The Supreme Court friezes do not include Jesus.
The Louisiana ACLU’s new executive director said Wednesday that changes to the display appear to show a clear intent by court officials to try to fix something they view as a problem.
“The question of whether Jesus needs to come down is the same question,” said Marjorie Esman, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such displays must be conceived from the beginning. “You can’t cure a problem by dressing it up.”
The dispute began June 20 when the ACLU sent a letter to the court saying it had received a written complaint about the display, which has been in place since the courthouse opened in 1997. The organization said the court must remove the display or face a lawsuit.
The ACLU filed suit July 3 in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
Christine Harvey writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
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