La. courthouse's lone Jesus painting deemed unconstitutional

By: By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
By: By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Displaying a portrait of Jesus in the foyer of a Louisiana courthouse is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled this week, siding with civil libertarians who sued over the display.

But inserting Jesus within a group portrait of historic figures at the courthouse is permissible, the judge said.

In a ruling filed Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle awarded "nominal" damages plus attorneys' fees and costs to the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana in its case against Slidell City Court, Judge James Lamz and St. Tammany Parish, which partially finances the court.

Lemelle said during a hearing last September that he would have ordered court officials to remove the Jesus icon if they hadn't already expanded the display to include portraits of other historic "lawgivers," including Moses, Charlemagne and Napoleon Bonaparte.

His ruling this week echoes those remarks and explains that the expanded display is constitutional because a reasonable observer wouldn't see it as sending a religious message.

However, Lemelle concluded that the plaintiffs' constitutional rights were violated by the original display, which depicted Jesus presenting the New Testament above the words, "To Know Peace, Obey These Laws."

"Context" is the "crucial factor" in determining if a religious display is unconstitutional, Lemelle wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the Texas state capitol was constitutional, in part, because it was accompanied by other monuments and historical markers, Lemelle noted.

However, the Supreme Court ruled that a Ten Commandments display in Kentucky was unconstitutional because county officials there had "specifically expressed their intent to erect and maintain a religious display," Lemelle wrote.

J. Michael Johnson, an attorney representing the defendants for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights group, said he is disappointed by Lemelle's ruling and may file an appeal.

"It's unfortunate that the ACLU seems to be on a search-and-destroy mission for all things religious," he said.

Marjorie Esman, the ACLU chapter's executive director, said Lemelle's decision appears to be consistent with the Supreme Court's rulings in similar cases.

"We've always felt that this was a very clear-cut case," she said. "There was no need to break new ground on this."

The ACLU sued the lawsuit last year on behalf of an unidentified person who complained about the original display. Esman said the ACLU's objections were satisfied by the expansion of the display.

Lemelle gave the plaintiffs 10 days to propose a "reasonable" award for attorney's fees and costs. The ACLU has asked for only $1 in damages.

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