Maverick Couch can wear his “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” T-shirt to school again – without fear of being suspended.
The 16-year-old junior at Waynesville High School in Ohio has won a legal fight to wear the shirt, which was a gift from a friend’s aunt, on school grounds.
“I’m really blessed and happy,” he told msnbc.com on Tuesday, a week after he learned of a court action in his favor. “It’s just really amazing. I never thought it would come out like this.”
In the judgment entered May 21, U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett ordered school officials to allow Maverick to wear the T-shirt to school whenever he chooses. He also ordered the school district to pay $20,000 in damages and court costs to the teen.
“We’re very happy for Maverick and all LGBT students in Ohio,” Christopher Clark, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal, which sued on Maverick’s behalf, said in a press release. “If school officials had any doubt before, it’s clear now: First Amendment rights apply to all students on every day of the year, and efforts to silence LGBT youth will not go unchallenged.”
The settlement ends a legal fight that began a little more than a year ago.
According to court documents, Couch wore the T-shirt with a rainbow-colored Ichthys, or “sign of the fish,” and lettering that read “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” to school in April 2011 in observation of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s “Day of Silence.”
The principal, Randy Gebhardt, called Maverick into his office and instructed him to turn the shirt inside-out. Maverick complied. He wore the T-shirt to school again the next day. This time, his mother was called in and he was told to remove the T-shirt or face suspension. Maverick again complied.
When school resumed in the fall, Maverick asked the principal for permission to wear the T-shirt. Again, he was told he would be suspended if he did so. That’s when he and his mother turned to lawyers.
In January, Lambda Legal sent the school district a letter outlining Maverick’s First Amendment rights and stating he had the right to wear the shirt. The school district responded that “the message communicated by the student’s T-shirt is sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting.”
The school district’s response continued:
“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.”
Last month Lambda Legal sued the Wayne Local School District on Maverick’s behalf, contending the district was violating the teen’s First Amendment right to free speech.
“I just wanted to wear my shirt,” Maverick was quoted as saying in a Lamda Legal press release last week announcing the court settlement. “The shirt is a statement of pride, and I hope other students like me know that they can be proud, too.”
The $20,000 that the school district has been ordered to pay will be covered by Wayne Local Schools’ insurance policy.
Superintendent Patrick Dubbs didn’t immediately return a phone call for comment on Tuesday. He earlier told the Student Press Law Center that the lawsuit, filed in April, came as a surprise.
“I would even question the tactics used because we were never told we were being sued,” Dubbs was quoted as saying by SPLC. “Our feeling was this never had to go to federal court. All of our actions all along, once we became aware of Lambda Legal, were that we never wanted to go to court.”
As for Maverick, he says he wore the T-shirt to school the day after he learned of the court judgment in his favor.
“I really didn’t get any reaction,” he told msnbc.com. "I had a few friends ask me, ‘Has anything happened?’ It was like any other day. The principal didn’t say a word.”
He says he plans to wear the shirt to school again in the fall when classes resume.
The message, Maverick says, is all about tolerance.
"We need to accept others how they come no matter their religion, sexual orientation, the color of their skin. Everyone is who they are. We all need to come together as a whole and accept everyone.”
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