A student at a small-town, southwestern Ohio high school has filed a federal lawsuit claiming his school’s principal violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to allow him to wear a “Jesus Is Not A Homophobe” t-shirt.
Sixteen-year old Maverick Couch and his mother Tonya Couch filed the suit Tuesday against the Wayne Local school district and Waynesville High School Principal Randy Gebhardt. (Read the lawsuit.)
The school district said in a letter that Maverick could not wear the shirt – which had the message “Jesus Is Not A Homophobe” in black letters and featured a rainbow-shaded ichthys – because “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 had the right to limit clothing with sexual slogans, especially in light what was then a highly charged atmosphere, in order to protect its students and enhance the educational 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.
The Couches want the federal court to stop the school from banning Maverick’s “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” t-shirt” and to award them “nominal” damages.
School district superintendent Patrick Dubbs told the Springfield News Sun he was “caught off-guard by the lawsuit:”
“It’s just been nonstop on the phone since then,” he said.
Here’s the sequence of events that lead to this lawsuit, according to the lawsuit itself:
- On April 15, 2011, Maverick wore the “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” shirt to school, in part because he wanted to participate in a national “Day of Silence” intended to bring attention to bullying and harassment of students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. His high school did not have a specific “Day of Silence” event planned.
- Principal Randy Gebhardt told Maverick to remove the t-shirt or turn it inside out. Maverick turned it inside out. On the next school day, Maverick wore the shirt to school again. The principal told him he would be suspended if he did not remove the shirt. Maverick removed it.
- The principal told Maverick that the shirt was “disrupting the educational process” and that it “had to do with religion” and that “religion and state have to be separate.”
- Several months later, at the start of the next school year, Maverick asked the principal again about wearing his “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” t-shirt to school. The principal told him he could not wear it because others might find it offensive.
- Maverick contacted the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for “lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those living with HIV.” The group’s lawyers sent a letter to the district in support of the teenager’s right to wear the t-shirt in question to school.
- The district responded with a statement (read it in full below) that said the high school principal was right to order Maverick not to wear his “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” shirt to school.