January 11, 2023
MRFF President/Founder Mikey Weinstein received an email January 10, 2023 from a MRFF client and alumnus of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) representing a group of 18 aggrieved Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Native American, atheist and agnostic midshipmen, alums, staff, and faculty requesting MRFF’s help concerning an overtly sectarian religious painting on display in the administrative building at the USMMA. MRFF’s client described the highly sectarian religious painting and as well as its incredibly dominating placement position:
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. 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. We want the painting moved to the USMMA Mariners Chapel to ensure an inclusive Academy experience for all faiths and non-faith traditions.
On behalf of these 18 MRFF clients, Mikey immediately contacted newly appointed USMMA Superintendent Vice Admiral Joanna M. Nunan demanding “…that this Jesus painting be immediately removed from its present site to another place at USMMA where its display is in full accord with the salient time, place, and manner requirements of American Constitutional law, such as the USMMA Mariners Chapel…” Mikey also noted the critical reason why these 18 clients approached MRFF:
I realize that you only took over command of the Academy about a month ago. Nevertheless, it is surely a shame that the command climate at USMMA is seemingly toxic enough to preclude those faculty, midshipmen, staff, and graduates under your command, and others similarly situated, from raising their civil rights grievances about this Jesus painting internally. Truly, they felt they could not do so without facing the very real likelihood of extremely serious blowback from you and/or your senior USMMA leadership. Their genuine fear of reprisal is why they came to MRFF for help.
Vice Admiral Nunan quickly responded to MRFF’s demand with a clear plan for corrective action, while taking into account the enormous size of the painting:
Thank you for reaching out to me on this matter. I had already identified similar concerns with this painting, and I am taking steps to address it. First, I have asked my staff to purchase a curtain to be placed in front of the painting. This will completely block the painting from view, but also allow those who wish to view it the opportunity to do so. Second, I have asked 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. Given the size of the painting, there is no other location to which it can be moved.
I ask your patience as the Academy takes these necessary and appropriate steps. I assure you that no meetings with mandatory attendance, including Honor Board hearings, will be held in the conference room until this work is complete. And I commit to providing you with confirmation once completed, including a picture. Again, I sincerely appreciate you bringing the concerns of those you represent to my attention.
VADM Joanna Nunan, USMS
U. S. Merchant Marine Academy
Mikey expressed his gratitude on behalf of MRFF and its clients for the quick reply and acceptable plan for rectifying this situation. However, while Mikey made it known that MRFF and our clients will have reasonable patience for plan implementation, he demanded a time frame for curtain/plaque installation and assurance of ‘No Mandatory Meetings’ until installation. Vice Admiral Nunan displayed her leadership and commitment to constitutionally mandated religious equality under her command at the USMMA by responding:
I am glad that you agree that the installation of curtains will resolve the concerns with the painting. Given the historic nature of Wiley Hall, in which the picture hangs, the Academy is in the process of purchasing curtains that befit the elegance of the building. In the interim, and to immediately remediate the matter, the Academy has installed temporary curtains (picture attached). When the permanent curtains and explanatory plaque are installed, I will send you pictures of those. Thank you again for bringing this to my attention.