A conservative group is demanding that Representative J. Luis Correa (D., Calif.) remove a high-school student’s painting from his office because it shows the Statue of Liberty wearing a hijab — and it claims that violates the separation of church and state.
According to an article in the Washington Post, the painting had placed fourth in this year’s Congressional Art Competition, which is an annual contest that asks high-school students to submit their work for a chance to be featured at the U.S. Capitol. A local conservative activist group called “We the People Rising” has objected to the placement of the painting on church–state-separation grounds, and is vowing to hold a protest at Correa’s office on September 11 if he continues to refuse to remove it.
“Ultimately, to attribute a specific religion to the Statue of Liberty is inaccurate, unprofessional and offensive,” wrote Mike McGetrick, an activist in We the People Rising, according to the Post. “In addition, the painting displays the torch of the Statue of Liberty, not as the heralded beacon of light, but rather held awkwardly to one side — in a perplexing, even disturbing, manner.”
The controversy has now received national attention — with public figures such as Sarah Palin sharing the story on social media — and I just have to say: Conservatives, you are supposed to be better than this.
It’s no secret that conservatives and Evangelicals are usually the ones arguing in favor of our freedom to display religious symbols in public places. In fact, if conservatives and Evangelicals ever do bring up “separation of church and state,” it’s usually to point out that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not explicitly appear in the Constitution (see: former Republican senate candidate Christine O’Donnell), and that the right to “free exercise” of religion does. Usually, it’s liberals and atheists (see: now-senator Chris Coons (D., Md.), debating Christine O’Donnell) pointing out that a phrase expressing a similar sentiment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” — does appear in the First Amendment, and that therefore, things such as nativity displays must not be allowed on public grounds.
Don’t get me wrong: That “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” phrase plays a crucial role in keeping our country free, but that still doesn’t change the fact that trying to use this line of reasoning to demand that the painting be removed is one of the most absurdly incoherent attempts at logic that I have ever seen in my life. This is one painting in one government official’s office, and trying to claim that a single painting in a single Congressman’s office could ever somehow amount to “government-established religion” is almost too idiotic for words. Yes, the Statue of Liberty is a political symbol, and yes, the hijab is a piece of clothing that’s associated with a particular religion — but there is nothing whatsoever in our founding documents that even comes close to suggesting that such a display should be prohibited.
There is nothing whatsoever in our founding documents that even comes close to suggesting that such a display should be prohibited.
Sarah Palin once wrote a book about the War on Christmas in which she argued that we should have the freedom to display religious symbols around the holidays. But the truth is, trying to use the Establishment Clause to remove this painting is far more egregious than trying to use it to remove someone’s office nativity scene. Why? Well, because the painting is pretty clearly not even a religious display in the first place. Think about it: This artist was quite obviously not trying to make a religious statement so much as a political one, a criticism of some of the rhetoric that Donald Trump used on the campaign trail regarding Muslim immigrants, and perhaps also of President Trump’s insistence on a travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries. Whether you agree or disagree with that criticism does not matter. That artist still had the right to express it, Representative Correa still has the right to display the expression in his office, and anyone who suggests differently should be ashamed of himself. This kind of display — a display that criticizes a person in power — isn’t just something that’s protected by the First Amendment; it’s arguably the most important reason for the First Amendment to exist. Our country was founded on the principle that we must have the freedom to criticize our leaders without fear of retaliation as a necessary check on their power over us.
Oh, and then there’s this: It’s a painting. If you’re really getting this upset about someone having a painting in his office that you don’t even ever have to look at, then I’m going to tell you shut up and instead spend your time feeling grateful for apparently never having had a real problem.