Justice Scalia mark on Schuylerville



Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Saturday at the age of 79, served on the Supreme Court for 30 years and made a large mark on the court and on American law.  There is a small intersection on the work of Justice Scalia that has directly influenced our community.

Scalia’s minority decision was mentioned in the court case Robert and Susan JOKI, Plaintiffs, v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF the SCHUYLERVILLE CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, NEW YORK, a Governmental Body of the State of New York; and Peter M. Brenner, Sr. as Superintendent of Schools of the Schuylerville Central School District, Defendants in the United States District Court, N.D. New York decided August 27, 1990.

As a background for the case the Washington Post reported on 25 May 1990:

Since 1965, a painting on permanent display has dominated the auditorium of the high school in Schuylerville, a mill town on the Hudson River in upstate New York. The creation of a student, Craig Martin, the work was donated to the school by him; and until two years ago, its existence was as uncontroversial as the high school winter show and the spring concert that regularly take place in that auditorium.

In 1988, however, Susan and Robert Joki, the parents of two small children in the school system, asked the principal and then the Board of Education to remove the painting. The principal declined, and the board unanimously rejected the very idea of censoring the artistic expression of an alumnus who had left behind proof of what high school students can accomplish.

The 10-by-12-foot painting — four times larger than any other works displayed in the auditorium — has a number of scenes, but the central figure is a man nailed to a cross surrounded on both sides by two other men nailed to crosses. And, as the Jokis point out in court affidavits, “the man in the center wears a crown of thorns and has a wound in his left side.”

Also in the painting are a fisherman throwing his net in the water; a man holding in his hand what appear to be the Ten Commandments, a woman in mourning over the man with thorns who is being crucified; and a baptismal ritual.
Susan Joki is Jewish. Her husband, raised as a Baptist, is an agnostic. Their children are being brought up in the Jewish faith.

The children, though in elementary school, are required to attend various events — such as the winter show and some concerts — in the high school auditorium. And as they move into the higher grades, they will see that painting of a crucifixion more and more often. Now and in the future, Susan Joki says, her children “are confronted with what appears to be the school district’s endorsement of a religious faith, one other than theirs, every time they enter the auditorium.”

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, she adds, forbids any public authority from endorsing or preferring any religion. And in a public school, the perception that the Christian religion is being officially preferred makes Jewish children feel excluded.

These points are being made in court by Scott Fein, a cooperating attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union and a member of an Albany corporate law firm, Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna. Kathryn McCary, an attorney with another firm — Clayton, Meade & Gallo — has been engaged by the school district. In this contest between high-powered advocates, she argues that the artist, Craig Martin, did not intend the painting to represent the crucifixion of Christ.
At the time, she emphasizes, Martin was deeply opposed to the Vietnam War and later became a conscientious objector, serving in the medical corps. He was quoted then as saying that the painting “represents the physical and spiritual nature of man. Everyone makes his own decision as to exactly what it depicts.”

That helps make our case, says the Jokis’ attorney. During argument before federal district judge Howard Munson, Fein pointed out that while the school district claims Martin did not intend the painting to be of the crucifixion of Christ, the 1966 high school yearbook includes a page about the painting and it is titled, “The Mural of the Crucifixion.”
In the context of this lawsuit, Fein told the judge, the intention of the artist is not relevant. What counts is how the painting was and is perceived by the students at the school.

The details of the case can be found here.  The court ordered the painting removed. The decision had to consider a number of Supreme Court decisions including a case known as Allegeheny, where the issue of whether the display of a menorah, standing alone in a city hall park, violated the establishment clause (separation of Church and State).  In his dissenting opinion in Allegheny, Kennedy (joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices White and Scalia) repeatedly distinguished the temporary religious display at issue from more suspect cases involving “permanent,” “year-round,” and “continual” religious symbols on public property, and pointed to the permanent display of a cross atop a municipal building as an archetypical case of unconstitutionality: “I doubt not . . . that the Clause forbids a city to permit the permanent erection of a large Latin cross on the roof of city hall . . . . [S]uch an obtrusive year-round religious display would place the government’s weight behind an obvious effort to proselytize on behalf of a particular religion.”  Even the minority including Scalia underscored the indisputably suspect nature of permanent religious displays.

The district court concludes that the display of Martin’s painting in the auditorium of Schuylerville High School violates the law.  The instant painting prominently displays a figure whom the average observer would believe to be Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. The painting lacks any meaningful neutralizing or negating features. Thus, it has the effect of conveying a message of government endorsement of Christianity.

This case is an important part of the legal history of our country. It is the interpretations of late 1980 Supreme Court decision that was influenced by Justice Antonin Scalia.  This Joki vs Schuylerville case is used to interpret the Allegeheny decision.  The case is mentioned in law reviews and online databases at Rutgers and Georgetown. 

Antonin Scalia leaves in death a legacy that will be fought over for decades to come.  During 33 years on the federal bench and 55 years in the law, the leader of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing influenced the way the Constitution and government statutes are interpreted.  This is one small example of how his work intersected with our community.  


Today, some 16 years later provide some irony on issues.  It is ironic that the Schuylerville Public Library (which I, Historian Sean Kelleher am a trustee) is represented by the law firm Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna.  The same firm that represented the Joki family.


The most recent school newsletter has an article about:

New student artwork will soon grace the halls of Schuylerville Elementary and Middle Schools. The district recently purchased five  pieces of student artwork to become part of its permanent collection. 

The pieces of art were shown at the Washington County Fair over the summer and then voted on by teachers in the district. 

The district has been purchasing student artwork for the past two decades.
“It’s a great tradition here in Schuylerville,” art teacher Michael Shea said. “We have some very talented students and it is wonderful to recognize their creativity while brightening up our hallways.”
The student artists include: Logan Bruno (grade 5), Miranda Mash (grade 5), Evelyn Haley (grade 6), Archimedes Davis (grade 7) and Reagan Hutchinson (grade 7).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s