When Napa High School senior Kyle Trudelle began his art project – a mural depicting steps leading to a castle in the clouds – he didn’t imagine some students would start a petition to stop him for violating the separation of church and state or school officials would order him to put down his brush while district lawyers reviewed the matter – particularly since there was already an adjacent mural depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe, an important religious figure to Catholics and the large portion of the student body of Mexican decent.
Kyle, an easy going but outspoken Christian who carries his Bible to school each day and has earned the nickname ‘Pastor K’ for sharing his faith, says he had gotten used to frequent criticism thrown at him for his beliefs.
“It comes with the territory,” he told the Napa Valley Register. “If you stand up for what you believe in, you will be persecuted.”
When two of his critics started a petition to stop his mural, complaining it looked too much like heaven and blurred the boundary between church and state, Kyle good-naturedly agreed to change it, even as the petitioners dismissed comparisons to the adjacent religious painting, saying that image was one of many in a mural about Hispanic heritage.
Not wanting to offend, he announced he would move the castle from the clouds to the ground, replacing it with a sunspot. His decision to revise his work was applauded by Barbara Franco, the principal of Napa High, calling it a testament to the maturity of the school’s students. “It doesn’t get much better than that,” she said.
The stairway could have been leading anywhere, says Kyle, noting that his painting didn’t include overtly religious imagery like a cross. “It’s not a religious thing. It’s more of a spiritual thing.”
His mother agrees. “It’s not like it’s the face of Jesus. It’s nothing more than a pathway to a nice, beautiful, glorious place that could be anything,” says Laurie Trudelle, wondering if people would complain if her son had intended the painting to reference Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
That’s where matters stood a week ago, but a bit of mulling on Kyle’s part, an order to stop painting by the principal, some national publicity and a telephone call from Gibbs Law Firm in Florida, whose attorneys represented the parents of Terri Schiavo in their fight to save their daughter from court-imposed starvation, changed everything.
Kyle’s not backing down. He wants to stand up for the rights of Christians in public schools and finish his painting his way. “It didn’t sit well with me that I was changing it,” he says.
In a letter to Napa High, Kyle’s lawyer urged the school to let him compete his work, arguing that making him change it would constitute discrimination, given the existing painting of the Virgin Mary already on the same wall.
“Kyle is incapable of violating the Establishment Clause because he is not an employee or agent of Napa High School,” the attorney wrote. “Instead, he is the Napa High School’s client or ‘customer.’ As such, he has the right to religious speech in a government school that principals and teachers do not have.”
Kyle hopes he gets to add the finishing touches before graduation on Thursday. He wants to add a final message: “Before leaving high school and entering this fantasy land, note that all controversy ends and is to be interpreted any way desired.”
For his part, art teacher, Chuck Svendsen who assigned the project, would like to see the whole matter brought to closure: “It was intended to be a work of art, and visually interpreted as work of art, not as political position or a religious position.”