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Battlelines Drawn Over Breathitt County Courthouse Jesus Portrait

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Debate is stirring in Breathitt County over a courthouse portrait of Jesus. Dozens of community members rallied Tuesday after learning that church-state separation advocates are considering a legal challenge.

A spokesman for the Freedom from Religion Foundation says the organization has been quietly requesting that officials remove the image of Jesus hanging in the main entryway of the Breathitt County Courthouse for years – with no response. Now they’re seeking residents willing to act as plaintiffs, a role foundation staff attorney Andrew Seidel acknowledges can be difficult to fill.

"There's a lot of fear surrounding challenging this because of the community reaction," he says. "People generally don't take kindly to their religious privilege being challenged."

The community response was on full display this week as demonstrators gathered at the courthouse to protest efforts to take down the portrait, which depicts a man kneeling before Jesus with the words “In your place, what would Jesus do.” Organizer Mike Bryant told WYMT-TV the image posed no problem until now.

"It's time I believe for Christians to stand for what they believe in and the picture of Jesus is not doing anyone any harm in the courthouse," he said.

Frank Simon with the American Family Association of Kentucky echoed those sentiments, adding, "There are some people that want to get rid of God completely, OK? And then the more they get rid of God the worse things get."

But the foundation says the likeness violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and implies a religious preference in the Breathitt County courts. Seidel expects judges will agree.

"This is not a new issue and it's not new to the courts," he says. "What they're doing is unconstitutional and hopefully they will see that avoid a serious bill to the taxpayers."

Local judge-executives report no plans to do away with the picture and opponents have already scheduled another demonstration for October.