A New Jersey charter school has been ordered by a Catholic priest to cover up its student-painted Pride mural, which the priest described as “offensive” and “obscene.”
Officials at the Bergen Arts and Sciences Charter School, Hackensack, were informed by the pastor of Holy Trinity parish from which the school rents property that an LGBTQ Pride mural must be covered up. Fr. Paul Prevosto described the mural as “obscene” and “offensive” for a space which the school shares with parishioners. The public school’s lease includes a provision it must abide by Catholic teaching.
Painted by a queer student, the mural paid tribute to the work of pop artist and gay activist Keith Haring and depicted a rainbow heart held by two figures, as well as two interlocking symbols for men. The student, who has remained anonymous, explained on Twitter, per The Advocate:
“They think it’s inappropriate and wrong for a school setting. I’m heartbroken and I really never thought this could actually happen. Please help.
“This school is infringing on my rights just as much as the church now. . .A public school is complicit in discrimination.”
iLearn, the company which runs Bergen Arts and Sciences, has rejected claims of discrimination, saying the school remains “inclusive, supportive, and respectful of the artistic expression of our students” while abiding by the property owner’s directives.
The Archdiocese of Newark, headed by the generally LGBTQ-positive Cardinal Joseph Tobin, has defended Prevosto’s decision, suggesting the incident has been “grossly misrepresented.” NJ.com reported that the Archdiocese claimed the issue was about both painting on the building’s surfaces and the removal of “symbols of sexuality that were inappropriate.”
But LGBTQ advocates have come to the student’s defense. Garden State Equality said it was “offensive, unconscionable, and flatly unconstitutional for this church acting as a for-profit landlord to restrict a public school’s curriculum or censor student speech within those walls.” The organization noted other anti-LGBTQ actions reported by the school’s students, including the termination of a unit on historical figures because LGBTQ folks were included and a school psychologist’s forced removal of a pro-LGBTQ-related poster.
The state’s Department of Education is now investigating the incident to determine whether any laws or policies were violated.
Despite the Archdiocese’s claims, the “gross misunderstanding” here seems to be Church officials’ lack of knowledge about the importance LGBTQ-positive school environments for students. A Pride heart mural creates precisely such an environment, especially when the student who painted it intended to honor someone like Haring. While some of Haring’s art is sexually-explicit, much of it speaks to social actions like HIV/AIDS advocacy, nuclear demilitarization, and anti-consumerism which the Church readily supports. Christian themes are throughout his body of work, too. What sad reductionism to take a positive message of love and acceptance and reduce it to sex. In the past, Cardinal Tobin’s approach to LGBTQ issues has seemingly been one of welcome and inclusion. It is too bad that approach is not practiced at Holy Trinity, too.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 25, 2019