an art teacher who displayed pictures of the Prophet Muhammad in class sues Hamlin University; School officials say calling her Islamophobic was flawed
A former art teacher who showed pictures of the Prophet Muhammad in class has sued Hamlin University, saying officials defamed her and reneged on her offer to teach in the spring.
Attorneys for Erica Lopez-Prater announced Tuesday that she has sued the university for defamation, religious discrimination and breach of contract, among other things. Less than two hours later, the university’s president and board chair said in a joint statement that they had “learned a lot” about Islam and that the earlier decision to label the incident as anti-Islamic was a “shameful” one.
Saint Paul’s College found itself at the center of an agonizing debate about academic freedom and religious tolerance this month as news of the university’s decision not to renew Lopez-Prater’s contract spread around the world. Teachers rallied around Lopez-Prater, saying the university’s decisions could have a chilling effect on professors who teach controversial subjects. A prominent local Islamic organization supported the principals, saying they should work to protect students of diverse religious beliefs while a national Islamic group said it did not consider the teacher’s behavior wrong.
Scholars and religious leaders I disagree sometimes On whether Islam allows images of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims argue that images are strictly forbidden to avoid idolatry. Others have pictures of the Prophet in their homes.
During a semester in October, Lopez Prater Displaying two centuries old works of art which depict the Prophet receiving revelations from the angel Gabriel later form the basis of the Qur’an. Lopez-Prater said she provided a disclaimer in the course syllabus and spent “at least two minutes” preparing the students for the photos. One of her students, Aram Wedatallah, president of the Muslim Students League, said she heard the professor sound a “warning”, and asked why “then I looked and it was the Prophet”.
In the lawsuit, attorneys for Lopez-Prater said she shared her curriculum with a department chair and others at Hamlin University and no one raised concerns about her decision to display the photos.
“Students viewing the class on the Internet received many warnings about the paintings,” attorney David Ridden writes. “Students who watch class online also have ample opportunity to step away from their computer screens, take their screens away from them, turn off their screens, or even leave their rooms before showing the panels.”
The department chief initially told Lopez-Prater, Redden writes, “It sounded like you did everything right.”
A few weeks later, she received an email informing her that the university would not be offering a spring semester course on art history online and that she had been in discussions about teaching. In early November, the university’s Office of Comprehensive Excellence sent a campus email saying that the actions taken in her class were “undoubtedly inconsiderate, disrespectful, and anti-Islam”—a statement disputed by some Muslim scholars and advocacy groups.
Hamlin University has made Lopez-Prater a “pariah,” Redden writes, eliminated opposition from others seeking to support her, and allowed people to defame her in the student newspaper and during a “community talk” event discussing Islamophobia in December. He accused the university of violating its policy on academic freedom and discriminating against Lopez-Prater “because she is not a Muslim, because she does not conform in her behavior to the specific beliefs of a Muslim sect, and because she does not align her behavior with the religion-based preferences at Hamlin that stipulate that images of Muhammad not be shown to any student of Hamlin.” “.
Lopez-Prater, Reden writes, “experienced immediate, acute, and lasting emotional distress, including various physical manifestations of that distress.”
The university declined to comment on the lawsuit on Tuesday evening. In a joint statement, university president Vines Miller and board president Ellen Waters did not discuss the lawsuit, but said the flurry of news coverage has prompted them to “review and re-examine” the university’s response.
“Hamlin is a multicultural, multifaith community that has pioneered the creation of a space for civic conversation. Like all organizations, sometimes we get it wrong,” the two wrote.
“In order to listen to and support our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our feelings about academic freedom. Based on everything we have learned, we have determined that our use of the term ‘anti-Islam’ was flawed,” they wrote. “We strongly support academic freedom for all members of the Hamline community. We also believe that academic freedom and student support can and should coexist.”
The university said it will host two events in the coming months: one that will focus on academic freedom and student welfare, and the other on academic freedom and religion.