Since 1982, more than 650,000 high school students have participated in the Congressional Art Competition. Every congressional district in every state puts up the best and the brightest artistic talent it has to offer, and the winning artwork is put on display in the Capitol building for a year. It’s a relatively benign tradition, so it’s surprising that for the second year in a row, the contest has found itself in the midst of a right-wing-fueled controversy. While last year’s outrage centered on the depiction of cops as pigs and ended with the painting being removed permanently from the Capitol, 2017’s drama is unfolding around a painting of Lady Liberty as a Muslim in a hijab.
The painting, which won fourth place in California’s 46th district, currently hangs in the Santa Ana district office of Democratic Rep. Lou Correa. “You take it in the context of a lady, probably a Muslim American — with all that’s going on, she’s a proud American,” Correa told The Orange County Register, adding, “That’s what it says to me.” It’s this display of multiculturalism and tolerance that We the People Rising, an extreme-right activist group, claims is a direct violation of the separation between church and state.
“Ultimately, to attribute a specific religion to the Statue of Liberty is inaccurate, unprofessional and offensive,” a member of the group told The Washington Post. “In addition, the painting displays the torch of the Statue of Liberty, not as the heralded beacon of light, but rather held awkwardly to one side — in a perplexing, even disturbing, manner.” We the People Rising want to see this portrait removed from the wall of their local representative’s office and want it done soon: they’ve already threatened to disrupt business as usual and protest the office on Sept. 11.
This isn’t the first time the group has taken aim at Correa, having crashed the congressman’s town hall on immigration earlier this year, a disruption that wound up with two people being arrested. The objection to the painting, however, has catapulted the small, local group to a national scale through the support of figures like Sarah Palin who immediately began to rally their bases, leaping to action at the mere hint of the rebirth of a culture war.
The fight is the second in as many weeks to arise around the Statue of Liberty. On Aug. 2, White House aide Stephen Miller disavowed Lady Liberty in a press briefing, suggesting that “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was not a statement that had any correlation to the landmark — an assertion that is categorically false. Both events come in the wake of the Trump administration revealing its new immigration plan, the RAISE act.
Correa, for his part, isn’t backing down. In an Aug. 8 post on Instagram, Correa wrote: “There are some who #hate this painting and want me to take it down. I see a young woman who is trying very hard to show people that she is an #American. If I took down her #art, I’d be telling the world her experiences don’t matter and she did something wrong. This is her country too, and she earned that spot on my wall.” So far, he’s remained true to his word and the painting remains on his wall, serving as a small beacon of hope at the end of a deep, dark tunnel of right-wing rage that’s become all-encompassing in the era of Trump.