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.

While Judge Munson decides whether to send the case to trial or to grant the Jokis summary judgment, the customary obbligato of "us against them" in these cases has surfaced in Schuylerville. Most of the residents want the painting retained and do not understand why this should be a federal case, or in court at all. Some have reminded Susan Joki that although she has been in the community for 10 years, she's an outsider, and is acting like one. Charles Martin, father of the artist, says the "Holocaust is over. It's been over for years. If they would just shut their mouths, we could all go on living." And on the telephone, Susan Joki was told, "Hitler should have killed you, all you Jew bastards. The painting will stay."

But members of the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs have signed a petition urging the school district to remove the painting.

Meanwhile, Craig Martin has not been heard from concerning the meaning of his painting. He is now in Louisiana painting offshore oil rigs -- work that requires no interpretation.