A painting that came in fourth place in the Congressional Art Competition in California’s 46th district is placing first on local conservatives’ hit list. The artwork, by a female high school student in Democratic Congressman J. Luis Correa’s district, portrays Lady Liberty as a woman wearing a hijab and holding her trademark torch at a diagonal angle across her chest, rather than raised over her head as in Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s monumental version.
“My thoughts were, here’s probably a young Muslim lady who is trying very hard to be part of America, who is trying very hard to show people that she is an American, given the context that is going on around us in our country,” Correa told the Washington Post, reaffirming that he has no plans to remove the artwork from the wall of his office in Santa Ana. Correa’s office has also decided to conceal the artist’s identity for her safety.
However, We the People Rising (WTPR), a conservative group based in nearby Claremont and advocating for stringent reforms to US immigration policy, is demanding the work’s removal. In late June, members of the group spoke with Correa at an open house event, and explained to him that wearing a hijab implies one is a follower of the Muslim faith, and that having the painting in his district office is therefore “a violation of the separation of church and state, according to a legal consultant who analyzed this issue.”
A YouTube video uploaded on June 30 shows two WTPR members’ visit to Correa’s district office. One of them tells a member of the congressman’s staff that the painting “is offensive to Americans, who are working so hard to reclaim America,” adding that the way the figure in the painting holds the torch “looks like she don’t even care.” The other claims that in the painting “the Statue of Liberty is crying.” In a letter sent to Correa last month, WTPR member Mike McGetrick deemed the high school student’s artwork “inaccurate, unprofessional, and offensive.”
Subjective interpretations and misconceptions about the purpose of art aside, Correa still has no plans to take the work down. “This is an art competition for our high school students,” he told the Orange County Register. “I want our students to express themselves through art. To take it down would signal that this is not welcome and that would send the wrong message.”
A slew of Republican members of Congress and the Architect of the US Capitol had no qualms about sending high school students the wrong message earlier this year, when a winning painting from the Congressional Art Competition in St. Louis, Missouri, was repeatedly removed from the hallway connecting two Capitol Hill buildings. That painting, created last year by then high school senior David Pulphus, depicted a protest scene in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer in 2015. Its ultimate removal, by order of the Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, spurred a federal lawsuit.
The dispute over the Santa Ana painting of Lady Liberty coincides with another debate about the symbolism of the towering sculpture. Its function as a welcoming beacon for immigrants arriving in the United States was called into question earlier this month by senior White House advisor Stephen Miller.