CINCINNATI (CN) – A student and his mom sued a high school principal and school district in Federal Court, challenging their diktat that the student’s T-shirt, “Jesus Is not a Homophobe,” is “sexual in nature and therefore indecent”.
Maverick Couch and his mom Tonya Couch sued the Wayne Local School District and Waynesville High School Principal Randy Gebhardt.
Maverick says he wore the shirt to help raise awareness about the bullying of gay and lesbian students, and was forced to turn it inside out, and eventually “ordered … to remove the T-shirt or face suspension from school” because it supposedly “was ‘disrupting the educational process.'”
In addition to the slogan, the shirt bore an “ichthys,” or fish symbol, of two intersecting arcs, “now known colloquially as the ‘sign of the fish’ or the ‘Jesus fish,'” the complaint states. “During the early days of Christianity, when Christians were often persecuted by the Romans, the ‘Jesus fish’ was used as a secret symbol to mark Christian meeting places. On Maverick’s T-shirt, the interior of the Jesus fish is shaded in the colors of the rainbow. Rainbow colors are often used to denote identification with, and/or support for, the LGBT community.”
The complaint continues: “Maverick’s decision to wear the T-shirt stemmed, in part, from his desire to participate in the national ‘Day of Silence.’ The Day of Silence is a student-led national event, held annually, that brings attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools. Students from middle school to college wear messages of support of the event and of its goals on T-shirts and in other ways. In addition, students often take a vow of silence in an effort to encourage schools and classmates to address the problem of anti-LGBT conduct by illustrating the silencing effect of bullying and harassment on students who are or who are perceived to be LGBT. Although Maverick’s school, Waynesville High School, does not have a student group that was planning any Day of Silence activities, Maverick wanted to show his support for the activities taking place in other schools across the country by wearing his T-shirt.
“Maverick’s decision to wear his T-shirt to school on the 2011 Day of Silence did not cause disruption of or interference with school activities. Nevertheless, he was summoned to Principal Gebhardt’s office. Principal Gebhardt told Maverick to remove the T-shirt or to turn it inside out. Maverick complied with Principal Gebhardt’s directive by turning the T-shirt inside out.
“On the next day of school (after the intervening one-week spring break), Maverick again wore his T-shirt to school. Once again, his T-shirt did not cause disruption of or interference with school activities, but he was nonetheless summoned to the principal’s office. Principal Gebhardt ordered Maverick to remove the T-shirt or face suspension from school. Maverick asked Principal Gebhardt to contact Maverick’s mother. After Ms. Couch arrived at school, Principal Gebhardt repeated his position that Maverick would be suspended from school if Maverick did not remove the T-shirt. Maverick removed the T-shirt and returned to class.
“On the two days that Maverick wore the T-shirt, Principal Gebhardt provided two different explanations as to why the T-shirt was unacceptable. On one occasion, Principal Gebhardt told Maverick that the T-shirt was ‘disrupting the educational process.’ On the other occasion, he told Maverick that the T-shirt ‘had to do with religion’ and that ‘religion and state have to be separate.'”
Maverick eventually met again with the principal, who told him that if he wore the shirt again he would be suspended, prompting him to write a letter to Gebhardt explaining his position.
Gebhardt sent Maverick’s letter to the school superintendent and the Board of Education. Through its attorney, the board responded on Feb. 24 this year with a letter that stated: “It is the position of the Wayne Local School District Board of Education that the message communicated by the student’s T-shirt was sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting. Wayne Local School District Board of Education has the right to limit clothing with sexual slogans, especially in light [of] what was then a highly charged atmosphere, in order to protect its students and enhance the education environment. Consequently, the high school principal was well within the bounds of his authority to request that the student remove his T-shirt and refrain from wearing the T-shirt in the future.”
Maverick and his mom say the defendants are violating the First and 14th Amendments. They seek nominal damages and an injunction allowing Maverick to wear the T-shirt.
They are represented by Lisa Meeks, with Newman and Meeks.