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On Stage: a Drunken Christ; At Issue: Taxpayers' Dollars

July 17, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — The play "Corpus Christi" presents Jesus Christ as a lusty, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed homosexual. And Indiana state Sen. Michael Young can grudgingly accept that. "It may be vulgar, dirty, vile and everything else, but I guess we do have the 1st Amendment," he says.

Yet Young's tolerance only goes so far. Students at an Indiana state college plan to stage the play next month--in a theater supported by taxpayer dollars.

And Young deems that not only unacceptable, but illegal.

That's why he and 20 other state legislators have joined 11 outraged citizens in filing a lawsuit to block the performance. A federal judge will consider the case today and could issue an injunction blocking the students from staging "Corpus Christi" at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

The plaintiffs' argument runs like this: If government is not allowed to promote religion--by permitting prayer in schools, for example--then it should not be allowed to destroy religion either. And they deem "Corpus Christi" supremely destructive.

They have no problem with a private theater company performing the play. But they do object to a publicly supported institution such as the university using tax dollars to stage it on campus. To them, that implies that Indiana state government is endorsing the message "Corpus Christi" presents. And they interpret that message as an attack on Christianity.

If the government can't put a nativity scene on the city hall lawn at Christmas, they argue, then it should not be able to stage a play that shows Christ wearing a purple dress, having sex with his disciples, cussing and denying his divinity.

"Under the Constitution, we can't use tax money to promote religion, so we don't think it's fair to use tax money to tear down religion," said Young, a Republican.

Added state Rep. Jerry Denbo, the lone Democratic lawmaker backing the suit: "The play is going to offend a huge majority of the people of Indiana, and it's wrong. There are literally thousands of plays to choose from. Why pick one that we know is going to offend?"

Defenders of "Corpus Christi" counter with a question of their own: Who determines what's offensive? They sketch a nightmare scenario of censorship. If "Corpus Christi" is deemed an attack on religion, what about a novel such as William Faulkner's "Light in August," which presents an allegorical Christ figure as a murderer of murky racial heritage? Or what about Charles Darwin's theory of evolution? That contradicts the biblical creation story. It offends many who take the Book of Genesis literally. Should state universities strike evolution from their classrooms lest they be sued for using tax money to "tear down" religion?

If the plaintiffs prevail, academic freedom will be strangled as various groups seek to define--and protect--their own "acceptable version" of the Christ story, warned John Krull, executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.

The Constitution "prevents government from endorsing a particular religious faith," Krull added. "It does not prevent government from ever discussing questions of faith. And there is a well-established literary tradition of using the Christ story to illuminate social problems"--the intent, he argues, of "Corpus Christi."

But to the lawmakers and citizens who filed suit, "Corpus Christi" is not about provoking thoughtful discussions of faith or social problems. It's blasphemy, pure and simple. They insist it is different from Faulkner's novel or Darwin's theory because it is a direct assault on Christ. They don't necessarily mind if the script sits in the campus library or even if it is discussed in a class. But to perform it on stage, open to the community, is to use "public dollars and public property to tell people that the founder of their religion is a liar, a blasphemer and a homosexual," said John Price, the attorney who filed the suit. "That really is offensive."

He likened the campus staging of the play to government propaganda in Nazi Germany that portrayed Jews as filthy rats. "That helped set the stage for the Holocaust," Price said.

Amid all the rhetoric, one thing is clear: "Corpus Christi" has proven offensive to many--not just in Indiana but around the world.

The New York theater that debuted the play in 1998 received bomb threats. A run in London prompted a Muslim cleric to issue a death edict against the playwright, Terrence McNally, for slandering Jesus. The Santa Ana theater that gave the play its West Coast premiere in 1999 required ticket-holders to pass through a metal detector. And when students at Florida Atlantic University performed "Corpus Christi" this spring, state lawmakers briefly threatened to cut the school's funding.

On the Fort Wayne campus, theater department Chairman Larry Life said he did not consider the potential furor when he granted student Jonathan Gilbert permission to stage "Corpus Christi" as a senior project.

He did discuss other potential pitfalls: The structure of the play was a bit sloppy, for one thing. And the dialogue had some mushy spots. But a lawsuit? A federal trial? Twenty-one legislators calling the student project a "hostile government attack" on Christianity? He never imagined.

Still, Life is not backing down. Rehearsals are underway. At least two shows have sold out. And the university has added four extra performances, anticipating the controversy will kick up demand.

Life has refused to settle the lawsuit by moving "Corpus Christi" off campus. "If you start letting individual groups say they don't like certain things . . . what will be left on campus?" he explained.

The trial in U.S. District Court is expected to last one day. The judge has promised to rule by midweek, giving the losing side plenty of time to appeal before the curtain is scheduled to rise on "Corpus Christi" on Aug. 10.

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