The art history instructor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class can proceed with her lawsuit arguing that Hamline University discriminated against her on the basis of religion, but not on other claims she brought against the private school, a judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Menendez and attorneys on both sides of the case have acknowledged that the lawsuit brought by Erika López Prater appears to be raising new questions about how to interpret laws prohibiting religious discrimination.
An attorney representing López Prater argued the school would have treated his client differently if she were Muslim, while attorneys for the university have pushed back on that claim.
"Ms. López Prater may have difficulty proving her case at later stages, especially because demonstrating that Hamline would have treated her differently if she was Muslim seems very hard to establish," Menendez wrote in an order issued Friday. "But the sole question before the Court at this stage is whether her allegations plausibly state a claim for relief."
The judge dismissed several other claims in López Prater's lawsuit — for reprisal, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and retaliation — finding that the alleged actions didn't meet the threshold for proceeding or that university administrators' statements on the incident were opinions and therefore protected speech.
The lawsuit stems from an incident that placed Hamline University at the center of a painful debate over academic freedom and religious tolerance.
López Prater was working as an adjunct professor at the university in the fall of 2022 when she showed students two centuries-old artworks depicting the Prophet Muhammad. One showed the prophet — including his face — as he received a revelation from the Angel Gabriel that would later form the basis of the Qur'an. The second showed a similar moment, but with the prophet's face veiled and his image surrounded by a halo.
Scholars and religious leaders have sometimes disagreed about whether Islam permits images of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims argue that the images are strictly prohibited to avoid idolization. Others have images of the prophet in their homes.
López Prater said she provided a disclaimer in the syllabus for the course and spent "at least a couple minutes" preparing students for the images. One of her students, Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, said she heard the professor give a "trigger warning," wondered what it was for, "and then I looked and it was the prophet." Wedatalla contacted university administrators to raise concerns.
The university decided not to renew López Prater's contract.
Hamline University, which enrolls about 3,400 students, is a private university with a long history of connections to the United Methodist Church.
David Redden, an attorney representing López Prater had argued that the university discriminated against her because she was not Muslim and failed to conform to some Muslim beliefs. Attorney Mark Berhow, who represents the university, had accused him of "trying to shoehorn a religious discrimination claim where it just simply doesn't fit" and asked the judge to dismiss the claim.
Menendez wrote in her order, "Although the Court appreciates that Ms. López Prater alleges unusual and somewhat indirect theories for religious discrimination, it does not believe that novelty in this context equates to failure to state a claim. Given the lens applicable at this stage, where a plaintiff's allegations are taken as true, dismissal is not appropriate."
Redden didn't immediately comment. Berhow said the university's attorneys are encouraged by the judge's decision to dismiss most claims "and, as the case progresses, look forward to demonstrating that the sole remaining claim is also without merit."