Colin and John Hayward at school board meeting, May 23. | Credit: Courtesy

Take an artistic photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the photographer’s urine, and you have Andres Serrano’s controversial 1987 artwork “Immersion (Piss Christ).” Use that same photograph in a high school curriculum, and you have Christian parents and students speaking of blasphemy and religious discrimination during public comment at a school board meeting. 

The controversy began when a teacher at Dos Pueblos High School included the image on a PowerPoint slide in her college-level Theory of Knowledge class, a required course in the school’s International Baccalaureates (IB) program. According to the Santa Barbara Unified School District, it was to foster discussion around the topic of “what is art?” 

At the district’s school board meeting on May 23, Christian parents and students rallied around John Hayward, a rising senior at Dos Pueblos in the IB program who was not actually enrolled in the class but objected to the image when he heard it was used in class discussion. Hayward said he would have to take the class next year to get an IB diploma and felt he had no choice but to drop out of the program should the image have remained in the curriculum.

Twelve people spoke at the meeting, saying they were, in one way or another, disturbed by the “sacrilegious” image of “the son of God immersed in Serrano’s urine.” 

Some argued that the image violates school policies concerning instruction about religion and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion. Some alleged the photo is “hate speech,” and many claimed it debases and “undermines the Christian and Catholic faith.” 

One man was brought to tears as he accused the Dos Pueblos administration of hate speech, and being “just plain mean,” toward its students of Christian faith by “forcing” them to “view their savior, and God, Jesus Christ, in a jar of urine.” 

When the student first brought his objections to the school’s attention earlier in the semester, school officials met with him and his family to discuss their concerns. The class’s instructor told administrators that she was not using the image to offend or harass anyone.  

Hayward charged that school administrators initially “brushed off” his complaints. However, Dos Pueblos Principal Bill Woodard promised to have the image removed from course materials following discussion with Hayward’s family and the family’s involvement of legal counsel. 

“Immersion (Piss Christ)” (1987) by Andres Serrano | Credit: Wikipedia

On May 9, the school district was sent a letter from attorneys with the Thomas More Society — a conservative nonprofit law firm that has historically supported the anti-abortion movement —  representing Hayward. 

They requested the district take action to remove the image from the curriculum and threatened that if it were not removed, they would “take all appropriate steps to protect” the district’s students “from religious discrimination and harassment.” The attorneys claimed the image was “anti-Catholic” and an “attack on a student’s religious beliefs.” 

“The image is meant to provoke a reaction and it is meant to be harassing,” they claim in the letter. “In that sense, it may be ‘art,’ but teaching it is no different than asking students to personally step on a crucifix so that the class can then have a discussion about how engaging in blasphemy made them feel.” 

The district’s lawyer stated in a response on May 22 that it was their understanding that the same instructor would not be teaching the same course in the fall, nor would the image be used in the curriculum that semester.  

Thomas More attorneys accused the district’s response of being noncommittal since the district’s lawyer did not specifically verify that the use of the image would be permanently discontinued. Speakers at the May 23 school board meeting interpreted the district’s response as a renege of Woodard’s original promise to remove the image, and two parents threatened to sue if the school did not “reaffirm” that promise.

On May 24, a day after the school board meeting, the district’s lawyer sent a follow-up letter to the Thomas More Society with the “unequivocal” clarification that the image’s use would be permanently discontinued in the class. “This was a small, yet significant, victory for Our Lord,” Hayward said in the law firm’s Tuesday, June 6, press release. 

In a statement, the school district said it “recognizes that the use of the image invokes hurtful responses among many in the community. Because the course curriculum can adequately be covered by discussion and through the utilization of other slides, the image will not be included in the future.

“While the image will not be used in the Theory of Knowledge curriculum going forward,” the statement continues, “it still may be discussed verbally in the context of discussing the confluence of art and censorship, an important issue in addressing the topic of ‘what is art.’” 

Serrano’s photograph was first met with outrage from certain religious and conservative communities after two Republican senators and the American Family Association, a Christian fundamentalist organization, declared war against it in 1989 on the grounds that they felt it was offensive and “blasphemous.” 

That year, it was widely learned “Piss Christ” had been partially and indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts — subsequently sparking a decades-long, nationwide debate around federal funding for the arts, and, in particular, using tax dollars to support what could potentially be considered as offensive or “obscene” artwork. 

Ever since its debut, “Piss Christ” has been repeatedly attacked and accused of demeaning Christian beliefs, becoming a poster child of the cultural clash between artistic expression and religious sensitivities. 

However, Serrano — who is known for using bodily fluids in much of his work — has argued that his art is informed by his own Catholic upbringing.

In an interview with British art critic Jonathan Jones for The Guardian in 2016, Serrano insisted that the piece was not meant to be a “blasphemous provocation,” but a “serious work of Christian art.” Although he admitted to leaving the Catholic church at 13, he said, “I was born and raised Catholic and I’ve been Christian all my life.” 

“What [“Piss Christ”] symbolizes is the way Christ died,” he told Jones, saying, “the blood came out of him, but so did the piss and the shit. Maybe if ‘Piss Christ’ upsets you, it’s because it gives you some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like.” 

No matter how it’s interpreted, or whether it’s “art,” the image will not be used in Dos Pueblos High School’s Theory of Knowledge class going forward, and the “Piss Christ” controversy that came to a Santa Barbara school more than 30 years after the image’s creation can now be put behind it.


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