A lawsuit brought by a former Hamline University art history instructor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class is raising new questions about how to interpret laws prohibiting religious discrimination.
An attorney representing Erika López Prater told a federal judge Wednesday that he believes the private university in St. Paul would have treated his client differently had she been Muslim. The university decided not to renew her contract and in a campus email an administrator called her actions "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic."
"Those are the types of things an individual would say to somebody who is not Muslim," attorney David Redden argued during a hearing aimed at helping a judge decide whether to keep the case, toss it or move it to state court.
Both attorneys and U.S. District Judge Katherine Menendez acknowledged that the case appeared to be treading on new legal ground. Menendez told Redden his theory was "novel as far as I can tell in the case law, but seems less novel societally."
Hamline University, which enrolls about 3,400 students, is a private university with a long history of connections to the United Methodist Church. "The religion in question is not one of either of the parties in this case," said attorney Mark Berhow, who represents the university.
López Prater was working as an adjunct professor at the university last fall 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 episode placed Hamline University at the center of an uncomfortable debate over academic freedom, Islamophobia and religious tolerance. Many academics rallied around López Prater, saying she had done more than most instructors to prepare her students for the images and they feared the decision not to renew her contract would have a chilling effect on professors who teach controversial material.
Groups supporting Wedatalla argued the university had an obligation to support Muslim students if it wanted to make good on its promises to promote diversity and inclusion.
López Prater sued the university in January for defamation, religious discrimination and other claims. Hours later, the university's president and board chair issued a joint statement saying they had "learned much" about Islam and that the previous decision to describe the incident as Islamophobic was "flawed."
On Wednesday, Berhow urged the judge to dismiss the case. "What this really feels like, in general, is trying to shoehorn a religious discrimination claim where it just simply doesn't fit," he told Menendez.
Menendez told Redden he was presenting her with "a lot of speculation" and asked him to further clarify his argument.
"You're asking me to just to assume that in this era a person who did share the Muslim faith would not have been terminated," she said. She asked, for example, if he knew the faith of the instructor who ended up teaching the course that López Prater had expected to teach in the spring semester.
Redden told her they haven't yet had a chance to do discovery.
Menendez also peppered both attorneys with questions about defamation law and the dividing line between what separates a fact from an opinion, protected speech from problematic speech. Menendez did not issue any rulings from the bench but promised to do so "as soon as we can."