January 24, 2019
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Maine judge to weigh asylum seeker’s suit over exclusion from national poetry competition

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Allan Monga, 17, of recites a poem at a press conference in Portland on Thursday. Monga won the state Poetry Out Loud Contest and, with the the Portland school district, is suing the National Endowment for the Arts and its chair for not allowing him to compete in the national contest because he has not yet been granted asylum in the United States.

A federal judge will hear arguments Wednesday in Portland in a lawsuit that pits an immigrant high school student who won a statewide poetry contest against the government-funded organization that sponsors the program.

Last month, Allan Monga, 17, of Westbrook won the Poetry Out Loud contest, sponsored in Maine by the Maine Arts Commission and nationally by the National Endowment for the Arts. The contest rules say participants at the state and national levels must be citizens of the U.S. or have green cards.

Monga moved to Maine from Zambia last year and enrolled at Deering High School in Portland. He has applied for asylum but has not yet been granted permanent legal residency status.

Attorneys for the National Endowment for the Arts urged U.S. District Judge John Woodcock to let its eligibility rules stand and to disqualify Monga from competing nationally.

“At this late stage in the competition, a finding that the NEA’s eligibility criteria are invalid would also jeopardize the integrity of the national finals,” a document filed late Monday said.

Monga and the Portland School District sued the NEA last week seeking to force the organization to let him participate in the national contest April 23 – 25 in Washington, D.C. 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.

Attorneys for Monga and the district said Tuesday in their latest court filing that “the NEA’s stance runs afoul of a founding value of our nation — that all persons within our borders deserve equal protection of the law, and a government rule that discriminates against vulnerable minorities is deserving of particular scrutiny. We are not a caste system.”

The Maine Arts Commission allowed Monga to participate in the state Poetry Out Loud finals even though staff had been informed by the NEA that he was not eligible, court documents said.

The NEA claimed in its filing that in setting its eligibility rules, the organization followed an example set by Congress in 1984.

“When Congress created the National Medal for the Arts, an award funded and administered by the NEA, it imposed similar citizenship requirements,” attorneys said. “The NEA is almost entirely dependent upon Congress for its funding. Accordingly, it is not unreasonable for the NEA to model eligibility criteria based on those that have obviously been important to Congress over the past several decades.”

The attorneys for Monga and the district said the NEA was subjecting Monga to a legal double standard — one set of rules on the school and state level and another on the national level.

“As the NEA would have it, Allan must face an entirely different constitutional standard upon advancing to the national competition, one that would exclude him, when, at the state and local level, a separate standard would not,” they said. “Our nation’s equal protection values should not, and do not, apply in such a fashion: to whipsaw an innocent minority member of our community who seeks only to participate in an educational and artistic venture on a par with his high school peers.”

Due to the pending litigation, representatives from the Portland School District, the NEA and the state arts commission declined Tuesday to comment on the case.

The judge is expected to rule this week.

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