A Hackensack charter school student said she was “heartbroken” after a local church and landlord instructed her school to cover up a mural she created in support of LGBT rights, and the school obliged.
The Bergen Arts and Science Charter School, which leases a building from the church that was formerly a Catholic school, painted over part of the mural that included a rainbow heart. The student, a 16-year-old high school junior, upset over the incident, turned to Twitter to protest.
“This school is infringing on my rights just as much as the church now,” she wrote. “A public school is complicit in discrimination.”
The Rev. Paul Prevosto, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack, which owns the building, said the mural was first brought to his attention by parishioners because of a depiction of male figures that he said looked "obscene." It showed abstract figures with interlocking circle and arrow symbols that represent the male gender.
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The church uses common spaces in the school, including the cafeteria where the mural was painted, for parties and gatherings.
"It was offensive," Prevosto said about the mural, adding that he asked the school "to take care of it."
Charter schools are public schools that are privately managed. As charter schools have grown, many have taken up residence in empty properties owned by the Catholic Church.
A lease agreement for the school includes a stipulation about Catholic values. “Due to the Catholic nature of the Landlord, Tenant promises to conduct no affairs or establish any organizations that would be contrary to its Catholic moral values, ethics and faith,” the lease states.
Prevosto said that, per the lease, anything "that would be contrary to our Catholic sensitivity should not be displayed or seen."
The New Jersey Department of Education said it was looking into the matter and declined further comment about whether any state policies could have been violated.
Earlier this year, New Jersey became the second state in the nation to adopt a law that requires schools to teach about LGBT history, including the political, economic and social contributions of individuals who are gay and transgender.
In a statement, iLearn Schools, Inc., the nonprofit management group that operates the Bergen Arts and Science Charter School, did not address the student’s complaint directly.
“As a public school, we are inclusive, supportive, and respectful of the artistic expression of our students, and likewise are respectful of the directives of the church as a private entity and owners of the property,” iLearn wrote.
Holy Trinity Church is part of the Archdiocese of Newark, which said Wednesday that it was also looking into the matter.
“We’ve not had the opportunity to make any determination as to what occurred. We hope to have a better understanding, once further information is made available to us,” the archdiocese said in a statement.
The Catholic Church opposes sexual relations between people of the same gender, but also teaches that LGBT individuals should be accepted with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, head of the Newark Archdiocese, has been among the most prominent and outspoken voices welcoming gays in the church. He has called for the church to be more inclusive and has met with and celebrated Mass for openly gay Catholics.
The student said her honors art class had painted murals inspired by famous artists in the school cafeteria. She painted a piece that was a replica of work by the artist Keith Haring, a socially conscious graffiti-style artist whose works grew popular in the 1980s. It featured colorful silhouettes of people and a rainbow heart held up by hands.
She said that "as a queer student," she wanted to pay homage to Haring's work, but did not intend it as a political act and didn't want to go against her school or the church.
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Online, she shared tweets of the mural before and after the church intervened. Her tweets were widely shared with many groups and individuals expressing outrage over the move to censor the artwork.
Among them was the Keith Haring Foundation, a grant-making group that promotes the art and ideals of the deceased artist.
“Many people are appallingly narrow minded and fearful,” the organization wrote. “We are deeply sorry that you cannot express yourself, as is your right.”