Minnesota professor dismissed over showing Islamic art can proceed with lawsuit, judge rules

Published 5:11 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

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ST. PAUL — A former Hamline University adjunct art professor can proceed with her lawsuit against the private Minnesota school but only on the basis of religious discrimination, a federal judge has ruled.

Erika López Prater sued Hamline University earlier this year after she was dismissed following a complaint from a Muslim student that she showed ancient images of the Prophet Muhammad in a global art course last year.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Menendez on Friday dismissed several other claims in López Prater’s lawsuit, including those claiming reprisal, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and retaliation, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported. López Prater’s attorney has argued that the school would have treated her differently if she were Muslim.

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The judge noted that López Prater’s religious discrimination argument is novel and that it will likely be hard to show that the university would have treated her differently if she were Muslim. Nevertheless, she rejected Hamline University’s request to dismiss the claim entirely.

The controversy began in October when López Prater showed a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad to her students as part of a lesson on Islamic art. She had warned them beforehand in the class syllabus, giving them an opportunity to opt out. She also reportedly gave a trigger warning before the lesson in which the image was shown. A student who attended the class — who was president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association — complained to the university, saying the trigger warning didn’t define what image would be shown. In Islam, portraying the Prophet Muhammad has long been taboo for many.

The university later decided not to renew López Prater’s contract.

The fallout was far-reaching, leading the school’s faculty to overwhelmingly call for university President Fayneese Miller to resign. Miller announced in April that she will retire next year. That announcement came three months after she conceded that she mishandled the situation, particularly in calling López Prater’s showing of the image “Islamophobic.”

An attorney for the university, Mark Berhow, said he and the school’s legal team are encouraged by the judge’s decision to dismiss most claims and “look forward to demonstrating that the sole remaining claim is also without merit.”