BASTROP — A mural meant to bring people together is causing a rift in the Bastrop community.
The painting in question, a student project completed in 2003, adorns a wall in the corridor leading to the Bastrop High School gym. It depicts the sometimes unpleasant history of the town, showing scenes of a Mexican and Comanche raid and slaves working in a cotton field, as well as unifying visions of children of different ethnicities reaching out to one another.
Bastrop school board members were surprised when almost a dozen district residents who signed up to speak at a community forum Tuesday evening wanted to talk about the mural, some calling for its removal on religious grounds and others with arguments for keeping it up.
Trustees hadn't heard of the controversy — district offices first received a complaint a couple weeks ago — but high school hallways are buzzing.
Patty Green, the art teacher who coordinated the project, said she doesn't understand why the issue is coming up now. Austin muralist Raul Valdez organized a group of Bastrop students to paint the mural using a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bastrop Association for the Arts.
"It sat up there for five years, and nobody had a problem with it," said Green, the head of the Bastrop association.
Bastrop resident Lauren Hansell, who made the original complaint, homeschools her children but visits the school on Fridays to pray with students at the flagpole.
A Christian, Hansell said she wants the mural removed because of the war and slavery scenes and depictions of Buddha and ancient gods. Hansell said girl's basketball coach Dee Deshay pointed out the mural as a potential problem.
"When she showed it to me, I was like, 'Oh my gosh,' " said Hansell, who added that the mural presents a new age idea of peace and unity that could be confusing to Christian students. Hansell said she'd also like a more positive image of African Americans. "It doesn't even represent even a fingernail of the faith here in Bastrop County and what (residents) believe."
Among the images on the mural are an Aztec sun, ancient Egypt's King Tutankhamen, Buddha and Shiva, a Hindu deity, dancing on a demon of ignorance.
Hansell, who at first interpreted Shiva's dance as a message in favor of abortion, said laws that bar Christian symbols from public schools should apply to the mural.
The First Amendment, which bans government-sponsored religious activities even as it protects religious expression from government interference, allows students to pray during school in informal settings, according to U.S. Department of Education guidelines. The guidelines say students have the right to "express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions."
Valdez, the muralist, said the purpose of the project was to represent the history and cultural unity in Bastrop. Although no one symbol can represent a culture, he said the students chose the mural's imagery to represent unity.
"It just so happens (the symbols) were religious," Valdez said.
Former school board member Carol Schumacher, whose daughter helped with the mural, said the attempt to take the painting down is an indication of a pervasive Christian influence in the schools that also manifests in the recitation of prayers before school board meetings.
Bastrop High School senior Ashley Crawford said that when she looks at the mural, she thinks about history. Crawford said the mural has been left free of graffiti, which she sees as a sign of respect.
However, some students have signed a petition asking that the mural be removed.
As Mandi Colvin, a sophomore at Bastrop High, sees it: "It's breaking the First Amendment. It needs to come down."
Nice to know freedom of religion only applies to Christians. What do you guys think? I think the whole "culture wars" thing gets worse the closer we get to a general election. Just something to keep in mind. Politics of division. I think it's sad that people are so threatened by other cultures. The homeschooling mother needs a good slap. I lol'd at the Shiva being an abortion symbol, though. Some people just make fun of themselves without any help from us.