After already ping-ponging between state and federal court multiple times, the lawsuit filed by former Hamline University adjunct professor Erika López Prater was moved back to federal court last week.
López Prater's suit alleges religious discrimination, reprisal, and defamation after she became the center of a controversy involving showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad in her art history class in October 2022.
The reason for the latest court jurisdiction change is that López Prater was part of a collective bargaining agreement with the Service Employees International Union Local 284. Under U.S. Code, questions regarding suits by and against labor organizations are handled in U.S. District Court.
On Oct. 6, 2022, López Prater showed her online class the 1307 painting "The Prophet Muhammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel," which she states in her lawsuit is "considered by art historians to be a global artistic masterpiece" and was made "by a Muslim for Muslims."
Knowing that "some Muslims – though not all – object to the creation or viewing of art containing images of the Buddha or the Prophet Muhammad," López Prater stated her intentions in her syllabus, had her syllabus reviewed and approved by her supervisor, went over the syllabus with students on the first day of class, and gave students an additional warning and chance to express concern or turn away from their computer screens before she displayed it, according to the lawsuit.
Following that class, student Aram Wedatalla, who is president of Hamline's Muslim Student Association, expressed outrage to López Prater and then complained to Marcela Kostihova, the dean of Hamline's College of Liberal Arts.
Four days later, Kostihova reneged on a previous offer to return and teach at Hamline for the spring semester, López Prater claimed.
The story began to gain national attention after the Hamline student newspaper The Oracle published a staff editorial on Nov. 18 entitled, "Incidents of hate and discrimination." On Jan. 10, the New York Times published a comprehensive article on the issue.
In response to the concern raised by students, Hamline's Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Everett wrote in an email to all Hamline employees and students in part, "Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic."
Everett and Hamline University President Fayneese Miller then co-wrote another email that said in part, "respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom."
In her lawsuit, López Prater explains the religious discrimination claims in part through her interaction with Wedetalla, the student.
"During their conversation, Wedetalla did not suggest that López Prater had surprised students by showing the paintings. Instead, Wedetalla was enraged that López Prater showed the images at all, to anyone. By her statements and actions, Wedetalla wanted to impose her specific religious views on López Prater, non-Muslim students, and Muslim students who did not object to images of the Prophet Muhammad – a privilege granted to no other religion or religious belief at Hamline," the lawsuit states.
The Minnesota Council on Islamic Relations has characterized the incident as Islamophobic. But the national arm of CAIR publicly disagreed, saying there is "no evidence" of Islamophobic intent.