A small southern Louisiana town is the latest battleground for a classic First Amendment showdown over the separation of church and state, pitting a feisty judge with a painting of Christ in his courthouse against the nation's top civil liberties group.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Judge Jim Lamz of Slidell, La., earlier this month for refusing to take down a portrait of Jesus Christ above the words "To know peace, obey these laws" displayed in a courthouse lobby. The judge says he believes the picture is legal, and the mayor of the city — the mayor and the town are also named in the lawsuit — called the ACLU "America's Taliban."
The case began when a man walked into the Slidell courthouse earlier this year and saw the portrait, which has hung there for a decade.
The man, who is insisting on anonymity because of the nature of the case, is named in the suit as "John Doe." In his first media interview since jointly filing the lawsuit with the ACLU on July 3, the man told ABC News about his encounter with the display.
"You go in the courthouse, and you can't miss it," he said. "And I'm thinking, 'This is a court of law and they're blatantly disobeying the law with a religious symbol.'"
The town is represented in the suit by the Christian-inspired Alliance Defense Fund, which might be called the right-wing version of the ACLU.
"[The ACLU is] one of the worst attackers of religious speech in America," Gary McCaleb, senior legal counsel for the ADF, told ABC News.
Court fights over religious symbols on public property are a cottage industry in America, from Christmas displays on town greens to judges who post the Ten Commandments in their courtroom. At the heart of these fights are the First Amendment's famous first 10 words, known as the Establishment Clause.
The words — "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" — seem pretty plain, but they are anything but to the parties involved in a legal scrap like the one in Slidell. And, with a decidedly right-leaning Supreme Court sitting in Washington, there is new zeal among groups like ADF to pursue such cases.
The ACLU and its supporters say the words in the Establishment Clause mean that no government entity can promote or endorse one religion over others. But the ADF believes the words should not bar religious expression by government institutions and were only meant to prevent the creation of a government-sponsored church.
The circumstances surrounding the Jesus painting make the Slidell case intriguing. Because the painting is the only display in the courthouse lobby aside from a picture of the courthouse's founding judge, the ACLU believes it's a religious symbol.
But the judge and his supporters flatly dispute this. Mike Johnson, an ADF senior legal counsel based in Louisiana, told ABC News the display is legal because there's no intent to advance a religion.
"The clear secular purpose for this thing was to decorate the walls," Johnson said. "This is not some sort of ulterior motive to advance Christianity."
Current law and past cases put the painting in uncertain territory. Two years ago, during the Supreme Court of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, two separate and conflicting decisions were issued involving religious displays on government property.