EXCLUSIVE: Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sent a letter to Merchant Marine Academy superintendent Joanna Nunan blasting her “flawed understanding” of the First Amendment amid the academy controversy around the covering of a painting depicting Jesus Christ.
Cruz sent the letter to Nunan on Tuesday, writing he is “gravely concerned” about the “decision to cover and move the painting ‘Christ on the Water’” painted in the 1940s “which honors mariners lost at sea during World War II.”
“At the time the painting was placed on the wall, the room ‘served as the Academy’s interfaith chapel’ and did so from 1942 to 1961,” Cruz wrote. “As described by the Academy, the painting ‘depicts an image of Jesus and merchant seamen adrift in a lifeboat, presumably after being torpedoed in the Indian Ocean during World War II.’”
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“It was ‘painted in 1944 by notedmarine artist Lt. Hunter Wood, USMS, to hang in the chapel built at the USMMA Basic School inSan Mateo, California,’” Cruz continued, noting that when “‘the San Mateo campus closed in 1947, the painting came to the Academy, and was installed in its current location.’”
Cruz said the painting “is now a ‘heritage asset’ in the custody of the American Merchant Marine Museum located on the Academy’s grounds” and that despite “earlier reports that the painting was too large to move,” recent reports said Nunan has “in fact, decided to ‘eventually’ move the painting to the USMMA chapel” out of the Elliot See Conference Room.
“Despite the Academy’s history and tradition of displaying the painting—one that undoubtedly has provided comfort and solace to thousands of merchant mariners through the years—you recently chose to first cover it with a curtain, and now remove it from the Elliot See Conference Room altogether, in response to a single complaint. That complaint came in the form of an email from Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, the president of an organization known as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.”
“The email alleged the Academy’s display of “Christ on the Water” violates ‘the salient time, place, and manner requirements of American Constitutional law’ and demanded that you remove it. This allegation’s ignorance of U.S. Constitutional law is surpassed only by the swiftness with which you capitulated to Mr. Weinstein’s demand, apparently within three hours of receiving the complaint.”
Cruz then blasted Nunan, saying he is “deeply concerned” by her “flawed understanding of the First Amendment to our Constitution” and that the time, “place and manner restrictions such as those Mr. Weinstein alleges are safeguards against government over-regulation of private speech.”
“But they are wholly irrelevant here because the painting is a government display, not a private one,” Cruz wrote. “The allegation that the painting somehow violates time, place and manner restrictions is an objective absurdity.”
“The relevant constitutional question is whether the Academy’s display of the painting meets the requirements of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” the senator continued. “As a longstanding display that is consistent with the history and tradition of the United States and its Maritime Service, it clearly does.”
“Under the Supreme Court’s standard for longstanding government displays, the painting is perfectly in keeping with the Establishment Clause,” Cruz added, noting Nunan’s decision to move the painting and “discontinue the use of the conference room it is presently located in” is “regrettable and suggests you believe a painting that tens of thousands of Midshipmen, faculty, staff, and visitors have viewed for more than half a century is now suddenly unconstitutional.”
Cruz said Nunan’s “response to Mr. Weinstein’s email” is “not only unsupported by the law, but is manifestly unnecessary.” The senator also said the response “raises the question of whether you, like Mr. Weinstein, are overtly hostile to religion.”
“Mr. Weinstein described the painting to you as ‘a disastrous display of Jesus supremacy’ and claimed that its placement caused him and others to be ‘viciously oppressed.’ Such obvious hostility towards faith has no place in America, let alone in one of our hallowed service academies. And frankly, to the degree you share such sentiment, it raises serious questions about your continued fitness to lead an institution dedicated to producing America’s future Maritime Service members.”
Cruz peppered Nunan with several questions in the letter, including whether the painting is still covered, when it will be moved, and “how many complaints” the academy received in the last decade prior to the request that kicked off the controversy.
The Maritime Administration (MARAD) did not immediately respond to FOX News Digital’s request for comment.
The controversy surrounding the Jesus painting at the Merchant Marine Academy has made headlines in recent weeks, with Republicans pushing back on the academy’s decision.
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who is running for Senate, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — whose department has jurisdiction over the Merchant Marine Academy — earlier this month demanding he take action to rectify the situation.
“Christ on the Water” was covered after 18 people objected to the Christian painting hanging in a room where mandatory activities were held.
The group of 18 asked the Military Religious Freedom Foundation last month to appeal to the academy, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation.
The foundation asked the academy to move the painting to a different location, such as a chapel, but the painting was too big to be moved.
Instead, Nunan chose to cover it with a white curtain. Nunan also ordered a plaque to be placed by the painting explaining its history.
The white curtain will be replaced with different curtains that “befit the elegance” of the painting, according to Nunan. The curtains will be kept over the painting during mandatory events in the room.
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