An unusual painting hanging in California lawmaker J Luis Correa's office has drawn the ire of conservative groups because it shows the Statue of Liberty wearing a hijab - the traditional Muslim headscarf.

While Democrat Correa insisted that the painting will stay, activists from conservative groups have launched protests demanding its immediate removal.

The painting was made by a female high school student as part of the annual Congressional Art Competition. Every year, hundreds of high school students submit their artworks for the competition, of which the winning ones are featured at the US Capitol. This contentious painting was reportedly a finalist in the competition.

The painting also shows the hijab-wearing Statue of Liberty holding her torch in the left hand instead of in the right hand as in the original statue.

Local activist group, We the People Rising, objected to the painting's presence in Correa's office, saying that such an artwork has no place in an elected Congressman's office. They called for removal of the painting, terming it a separation of church and state issue, according to The Toronto Star.

The activist group also said that it received guidance from a legal consultant.

"Ultimately, to attribute a specific religion to the Statue of Liberty is inaccurate, unprofessional and offensive," Mike McGetrick, an activist in We the People Rising, wrote in a letter sent to Correa about a month ago.

"In addition, the painting displays the torch of the Statue of Liberty, not as the heralded beacon of light, but rather held awkwardly to one side — in a perplexing, even disturbing, manner."

McGetrick requested Correa to take down the painting as it was "not appropriate" for the public office of a congressman to have the painting. He called the painting "reprehensible" and "more than a little bit insulting".

The group has now intensified its campaign to have the painting removed. They are reportedly passing out flyers in local neighbourhoods, urging constituents to contact the congressman and request him to remove the painting. They are also planning to stage a bigger protest on 11 September at Correa's district office.

However, Correa has maintained that he would not remove the painting as it was an individual's expression of art and hanging on the office wall only because it was chosen as a finalist for the congressional competition.

Policing art and "what is proper, what is not" would violate freedom of speech laws and lead to a "very dangerous slippery slope", he reportedly told the Washington Post in a recent interview.

"My thoughts were, here's probably a young Muslim lady who is trying very hard to be part of America, who is trying very hard to show people that she is an American, given the context that is going on around us in our country," Correa told the Toronto Star, speaking by phone from Jerusalem.

"By me taking it down I'm acknowledging that she did something wrong."