On July 20, 2001, U.S. District Judge William C. Lee ruled that a student has the right to direct a controversial play in a state university theater and that the plaintiffs failed to show how the production would violate the establishment clause of the Constitution, which requires a separation of church and state.

The play, Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, is scheduled to open Aug. 10 in Studio Theatre at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. As a result of publicity from the protest, an initial two performances have been expanded to six. The show will go on at 8 p.m. Aug. 10 and 11 and Aug.15-18.

The plaintiffs may yet persist in their attempt to restrict academic freedom and appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

(Posted July 12, 2001). On July 5, 2001, a lawsuit was filed in federal court in an attempt to halt the production of Terrence McNally’s play, Corpus Christi, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Among those listed as plaintiffs are 21 Indiana state legislators.

Corpus Christi is a contemporary version of the story of Jesus and his disciples set in the town of Corpus Christi, Texas. The controversial point is that Jesus and some of his disciples are depicted as gay men. The play is not at all intended to attack Christian beliefs; rather, it is an attempt to give contemporary significance to the story of Christ. It offers the Christian values of love and acceptance as antidotes to cruelty, division, hatred and, above all, hypocrisy.

History: The attack on the Indiana production of the play is one in a series, which started with its premiere in the fall of 1998 at the off-Broadway theater, The Manhattan Theater Club. On May 1, 1998, an article in the New York Post headlined, "Gay Jesus May Star on B’Way." The article claimed that the play featured a Jesus-like figure "who has sex with his apostles." This instigated wide protest from the Christian right community, notably the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. They called the play "insulting to Christians" and vowed to "wage a war that no one will forget" against its production. President William A. Donahue sent letters to numerous public officials demanding "an immediate halt on public monies that support the Manhattan Theater Club." A group calling itself the "National Security Movement of America" made telephone threats against the "Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally." The message went on, "Because of you we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground."

As a result of these threats and demands, Trans World Airlines, one of the corporate sponsors of the MTC, withdrew its financial support. On May 21 the Manhattan Theater Club announced that it was canceling its production of the play due to their concern for security, after anonymous threats of violence to the theater and its staff. Playwrights, directors, club members, the media, and others heavily criticized this decision. Freedom of speech advocates, including NCAC, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, New Yorkers for Free Expression, PEN American Center, People for the American Way, Visual AIDS, playwrights Christopher Durang, William Hoffman, David Henry Hwang, Tony Kushner, and author Judy Blume collaborated on a letter urging the Manhattan Theater Club to not cave in to terrorist-tactics. On May 28, the theater reversed its decision, claiming that they now had assurance from the police department that the production would be safe. The show ran as scheduled.

In March 2001, a student production of Corpus Christi at Florida Atlantic University resulted in threats by state lawmakers to cut funding to the university.

The current case: At Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, the play is set to open in August. The lawsuit is an attempt to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Saying that public funds used for plays of this type violate the U.S. Constitution’s mandate that government remain neutral?neither favoring or disfavoring?in matters involving religion, 32 individuals (including 21 Indiana legislators) filed the lawsuit.

For it’s part, IPFW is on record as saying that the matter is one of academic freedom and the right of students to exercise their right to free speech, even if that speech offends others. Anthony Benton, an attorney for IPFW, was also quick to point out IPFW’s decision allowing the play to go forward does not constitute university support for the content of the play.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union has also become involved, representing Jonathan Gilbert, student director of the play.

NCAC’s position: There is a fundamental difference between a university endorsing a particular form of religious worship and the open academic discussion of religious values. If discussion of religious values were banned from public university campuses that would preclude any study of the role of religion in history, any critique of the treatment of women under Islamic fundamentalist rule in Iran or Pakistan, any study of the Inquisition, or even the Koran and the Bible. For who would be able to decide that such critical study is not favoring or disfavoring a particular religion?

A re-interpretation of stories belonging to a religious tradition frequently provokes an extreme emotional reaction of offense or anger. However, there are many ways to express this reaction?the most obvious being to refuse to attend the play?which do not entail going against the founding principles of the United States Constitution. This is especially important where a public university is concerned, as academic freedom demands that the widest possible diversity of ideas and values be available for informed discussion.

Legislators involved:

Representatives: James Atterholt, R-Indianapolis; Jim Buck, R-Kokomo; Woody Burton, R-Greenwood; Robert Cherry, R-Greenfield; Jerry Denbo, D-French Lick; Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale; Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville; David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis; Dean Mock, R-Elkhart; Brent Steele, R-Bedford; Jeffrey Thompson, R-Lizton; Jerry Torr, R-Carmel; Matt Whetstone, R-Brownsburg; and David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake

Senators: Kent Adams, R-Warsaw; David Ford, R-Hartford City; Steve Johnson, R-Kokomo; Johnny Nugent, R-Lawrenceburg; John Waterman, R-Shelburn; Potch Wheeler, R-Larwill; and R. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis

Indiana senators contact information:
Indiana house of representatives contact information:

For more information contact:

Svetlana Mintcheva, Arts Advocacy Coordinator
National Coalition Against Censorship
212/607-8222 x23