A student says a Dallas public community-college teacher compared crosses to swastikas while explaining a school ban on religious items made in ceramics classes.
Liberty Legal Institute sent a Dec. 15 demand letter on behalf of Joe Mitchell, a retired General Motors employee, Dallas resident and student, to Eastfield College in the Dallas County Community College District. The complaint accuses the school of an “unconstitutional attack on religious expression in the classroom.”
Mitchell, 69, said the college has banned crosses, menorahs and other religious items from the ceramics classes.
According to his complaint, James Watral, chair of the ceramic department at Eastfield College, filled in for the regular ceramics instructor on the first day of a spring 2009 class.
“As Mr. Watral was giving students a tour of the pottery department, he took them to a shelving area where ceramics pieces are stored prior to being fired in the kiln,” the complaint states. “Mr. Watral then pointed to a cross and stated in front of the entire class with contempt: ‘I don’t like that.'”
“I felt humiliated and that my spirituality was being demeaned,” Mitchell said in a statement. “The whole point of art is to express who you are.”
He began enrolling in noncredit ceramics classes at the community college three years ago. Mitchell enjoys making crosses and distributing them as gifts to graduates, churches and charities. He said he was able to make a few crosses that semester, but he was forced to hide them behind larger pottery pieces so they would not be visible.
Mitchell said instructors and administrative staff told him on several occasions this year that he is prohibited from making his crosses. Then the college adopted a “no symbols” policy, and Watral distributed a memo to all ceramics students and instructors to inform them of the rules.
The memo prohibited creation of any “religious items” and “seasonal pieces – Christmas, Easter, Valentines, Halloween, ornaments, etc.”
“[T]he making of such pieces at Eastfield College demeans the goals of the ceramic program at EFC,” it stated.
Mitchell stopped making his crosses and filed a complaint with the art department, arguing that the policy discriminates against people of faith.
Mitchell had a meeting with Watral, and Watral apologized for “making the offensive remark about the cross,” the complaint states. But Watral then sent out a revised memo that prohibited “religious items that are replicas” rather than prohibiting all religious items. The new rules still prohibited “seasonal” items and purportedly required students to submit a written proposal each time they wished to create a cross or other religious item.
“Mr. Mitchell brought a ceramic cross to the meeting as an example of the things he wished to make,” the complaint states. “When Mr. Watral saw it, he physically recoiled in disgust, throwing his arms up into the air.”
During the fall 2009 semester, Mitchell said he was constantly asked by his instructor whether he would be creating religious projects. He created a ceramic Israeli coat of arms, including a menorah, to give to a Jewish friend. After the piece had been fired, he said his instructor, Chris Blackburst, asked if she could take a look at it.
“She told Mr. Mitchell that it ‘should never have made it through [the firing process]’ due to the religious content,” according to the complaint.
She then purportedly told Mitchell that he would need to buy his own kiln if he wanted to continue making religious art. She handed him two crosses that he had made and said the ceramics department would not fire them.
Mitchell said she then asked him if he considered a swastika offensive.
He responded, “Of course.”
“She then proceeded to compare the cross to a swastika,” his complaint states. “She stated that many individuals view the cross as an offensive symbol in the same way that many people are offended by swastikas, and that his crosses would therefore not be fired by the department.”
Another student, identified only as E.D., claims the department told her to “expand her horizons” when she constructed a cross in ceramics class. She said the adjunct professor teaching the course specifically said she could make any item except a cross.
E.D. said Watral phoned her and told her to “pick up her damn crosses” from the school. But she said when she went to retrieve them, they were destroyed.
“It appears the Eastfield College art department has no room in the inn for artistic religious expression such as that of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci,” said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation at Liberty Legal Institute. “Hopefully they will change their mind.”
The college claims the rules are to require students to make unique projects and avoid duplicate assignments, not to inhibit artistic freedom, Dallas’ WFAA-TV reported. The college said its legal counsel will review the policy.
Liberty Legal Institute’s legal demand letter requires that the college advise the group in writing on whether students will be allowed to create religious art in the class by Jan. 23.
“Unfortunately, not everyone has the Christmas spirit or even a basic understanding of religious freedom,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute. “The government cannot ban crosses and religious symbols.”
Concerned individuals may contact professor James Watral by e-mail or by calling (972) 860-7656. Interim college President Jean Conway can be reached by calling (972) 860-7001.