A Maine federal court judge peppered an attorney for the National Endowment for the Arts with questions at a hearing Wednesday over a Portland immigrant’s exclusion from a poetry contest.
Allan Monga, 17, of Westbrook, won the Poetry Out Loud contest, sponsored in Maine by the Maine Arts Commission and nationally by the NEA. The rules for the poetry recital contest say participants at the state and national levels must be citizens of the U.S. or permanent resident aliens.
Monga, who moved to Maine from Zambia last year, has applied for asylum but has not yet received a green card. He is a junior at Deering High School in Portland. He and the school district sued the NEA in U.S. District Court last month for not allowing him to compete at the national contest.
“Why is it in the national interest to prevent someone like Mr. Monga from participating in this poetry contest?” U.S. District Judge John Woodcock asked attorneys for the NEA Wednesday.
“It’s in the national interest to give the limited resources of the country to permanent legal residents and U.S. citizens,” replied Assistant Attorney General Rachael Westmoreland, arguing on behalf of the government-funded NEA.
She also said the rule was based on the qualifications Congress set for winners of the National Medal for the Arts, the only specific statute concerning the arts that sets out eligibility standards based on citizenship status.
“Other than that, Congress left it to the discretion of the NEA and other agencies,” Westmoreland said.
The Maine Arts Commission ignored the rule and allowed Monga to compete, attorneys for the NEA said in court filings. The state organization’s website says participants must be citizens or have green cards to compete in the state final.
“Just because you did it in the past doesn’t mean you did it right [under the law],” the judge said.
The lawsuit claims that by not letting Monga compete, the NEA is violating the equal protection clause of the 5th and 14th Amendments and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination in education, among other things.
The poetry contest is fast approaching, taking place April 23-25 in Washington, D.C.
The judge said he would rule in the case by Friday.
Woodcock suggested Wednesday that he could issue a temporary order that would allow Monga to compete in the poetry contest, but later find he’d been mistaken, avoiding setting any legal precedent.
Portland attorney Bruce Smith, who represents Monga and the school district, told the judge that his clients would continue to pursue the case even if Woodcock issues a preliminary injunction ordering the NEA to let Monga compete.
Monga, his attorneys and the NEA’s attorneys declined to comment on the case Wednesday outside the courthouse.
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