Updated Jan. 26 at 4:30 p.m. ET
A massive painting of Jesus walking on water will no longer be visible at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in New York after an advocacy group complained about the artwork.
In a Jan. 10 letter addressed to USSMA Superintendent Vice Admiral Joanna Nunan, Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, issued a “demand” that Nunan “expeditiously remove a massive, sectarian painting illustrating the supremacy of Jesus Christ” from the Elliot M. See Room inside Wiley Hall, which serves as an administrative building at USMMA.
According to Weinstein, MRFF is representing 18 midshipmen, faculty, staff and graduates in their appeal to the Kings Point academy. The USSMA is not under the Defense Department but rather the Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who was also copied on Weinstein's initial email.
The 10-foot by 19-foot painting titled "Christ on the Water" depicts an image of Jesus and merchant seamen adrift in a lifeboat "presumably after being torpedoed in the Indian Ocean during World War II,” according to a USMMA spokesperson.
Also known as “Jesus and Lifeboat,” the piece was painted in 1944 by U.S. Maritime Service Lt. Hunter Wood to hang in the chapel built at the USMMA Basic School in San Mateo, California.
When the San Mateo campus closed in 1947, officials say the painting came to the Academy, and was installed in its current location, which served as the Academy’s interfaith chapel from 1942 to 1961.
The American Merchant Marine Museum has custody of the painting and holds it as a heritage asset under the USDOT Maritime Administration (MARAD).
Calling the artwork a display of “sectarian Jesus supremacy,” Weinstein noted the room in which the painting is hung is used for various administrative meetings, disciplinary hearings and other events.
“The outrageousness of that Jesus painting’s display is only further exacerbated by the fact that this room is also used regularly for USMMA Honor Code violation boards where midshipmen are literally fighting for their careers, and, often even more, as they face the shameful ignominy of potential expulsion with prejudice if found guilty of USMMA Honor Code violations,” wrote Weinstein.
Weinstein told The Christian Post his clients “quite correctly believe that the display of the ‘Jesus painting’ is totally violative of the clear time, place and manner requirements of the No Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
“Given the utterly illicit and unconstitutional time, place and manner of its prominent display in one of the main Administration buildings at USMMA, and during absolutely mandatory attendance gatherings there, it clearly projects the sectarian supremacy of Jesus Christ in some sort of obvious ocean rescue scenario for what appears to be distressed mariners in an open boat,” Weinstein said via email.
“It's as though USMMA is screaming that ‘Jesus Christ is the only approved solution to all of life’s difficulties.’"
Following the decision to cover the painting, USMMA alum Peter Lynch launched an online petition calling for “any form of covering [to] be removed to allow the original artwork to be viewed and that a plaque describing the historic significance of the painting be placed alongside it.”
After only 48 hours, the petition garnered over 2,600 signatures as of Thursday.
The petition description stated in part: “The decision to cover the painting was made with no opportunity for discussion. The artwork was completed in 1944 during World War II and the first days of the Academy. It is an historic painting that has conveyed hope and inspiration to nearly every class of midshipmen to come through the Academy.”
Noting that his clients represent a number of different religions, including Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, Weinstein shared emails from clients, including one who wrote: “The painting of Jesus standing over an open lifeboat carrying survivors of a sunken merchant ship has hung in the Elliot M. See room for decades denigrating non-Christians. Its location in the administration building implies that the Academy officially endorses Christianity over other faiths.
The email added: “It marginalizes non-Christian members of the Academy. In addition, the Elliot M. See room serves as the backdrop for Midshipmen Honor Boards, creating a hostile atmosphere for non-Christian midshipmen defending themselves against alleged honor violations. The painting does not ensure a diverse, equitable, or inclusive environment for non-Christian USMMA midshipmen, graduates, staff, or faculty.”
According to Weinstein, Nunan responded within hours of the initial email and acknowledged she “had already identified similar concerns with this painting, and I am taking steps to address it.”
Acknowledging the size of the painting prohibits moving it to another location, Nunan said she asked her staff to buy a curtain to place in front of the painting, which will “completely block the painting from view, but also allow those who wish to view it the opportunity to do so.”
The Vice Admiral also said she would work with the director of the American Merchant Marine Museum to “prepare a plaque that explains the history of the painting, which will be installed near it.”
In a statement released Thursday, a USMMA spokesperson said “immediate steps” were taken in response to the “constitutional concerns” related to the painting.
After weighing “multiple options to comply with the law while seeking to balance the interests of everyone in our community,” the USMMA decided to cover the painting with white curtains, and plans to install a plaque describing its history at a later date.
The curtains will remain closed when official Academy meetings and events are conducted.
“Our priority is to ensure the Academy is a welcoming environment for all and that it respects all religions without endorsing one over any others…This solution balances legal requirements with the concerns of those who have an interest in the painting,” the statement added.
“We value the opinions of all in our community, and we are committed to making the Academy a better place."
Weinstein told CP that while he would have preferred the painting be moved to another location, such as the Mariner’s Chapel, he is “satisfied” with the response and hopes the USMMA can use it as a “teachable moment.”
“We feel that the use of the curtain covering the painting will serve to create even more positive teachable moments when observers inevitably ask why it is there at all and what is underneath,” he said.
Upon assuming command of the USMMA last month, Nunan became the first woman in the Academy’s history to serve in the role of vice admiral. She spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, and, according to her bio, “helped spearhead efforts to expand diversity and inclusion in the Coast Guard.”
Ian M. Giatti is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.