'Jesus is not a homophobe' T-shirt ban lands Wayne Schools in federal court

CINCINNATI - A 16-year-old junior at Waynesville High School is taking his school district to federal court for denying him his First Amendment rights, according to Lambda Legal attorney Christopher Clark.

Lambda Legal is an advocacy group based in New York that promotes civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people through impact litigation, education and public policy work, according to a release.

At issue is a T-shirt that says "Jesus is not a homophobe," which Maverick Couch wanted to wear last year in support of the annual day of silence, a student-led event where students bring attention to the issue of anti-gay bullying and harassment. Students will typically remain silent throughout the day to highlight the silencing of lesbian and gay students when they are bullied or harassed.

The principal, Randy Gebhardt, is also named in the lawsuit and told him to take it off when he wore it to school, Maverick said.

The lawsuit alleges Gebhardt threatened Maverick with suspension if he did not stop wearing the shirt to school.

This week is spring break for the district, and Gebhardt was not available for comment.

Patrick Dubbs, superintendent for the district, said by phone that he was "surprised" by the lawsuit, but stands by the principal.

Dubbs said prior to the suit being filed, he had not seen the shirt in question.

He would not comment about whether he thought it was disruptive, referring all questions to the district's attorney, William Deters II.

In a letter to Lambda Legal, Deters said, "It is the position of the Wayne Local School District 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 had the right to limit clothing with sexual slogans, especially in what was then a highly-charged atmosphere, in order to protect its students and enhance the educational environment."

As to the sexual nature of the T-shirt, Clark said at a news conference Tuesday morning in Cincinnati that "it's pretty apparent if you just look at the shirt, that argument borders on the absurd."

Couch said he was surprised when he was asked to take off his shirt.

"When I was asked to remove my shirt on the day of silence last year, I was baffled," Couch said. "I don't know how they see it as sexual, other than it having to do with sexual orientation."

"Public schools have a responsibility to instill moral values in students and provide students with an understanding of socially acceptable behavior," Deters went on to say in his letter.

"School is a place where all students should feel safe and comfortable," Couch said. "When those rights are taken away, it's not okay. I'm here to stand up, not only for myself, but many others who cannot stand up for themselves."

For Couch, it might seem like a lonely stand.

"I'm the only kid in my school that I know of that participates in this day of silence," he admitted.

"[Couch] wanted to participate in this event... on his own, to show solidarity with what was going on in schools around the country," said Clark.

Clark says Lambda Legal anticipates the courts will not resolve the issue before the 2012 day of silence on April 20.

"We filed in addition to the complaint, a motion for a temporary restraining order, and/or a preliminary injunction, which would provide preliminary relief to [Couch] during the pendency of this case," Clark said. "That relief would take the form of an order allowing [Couch] to wear the shirt."

The shirt still means a lot to Couch, he said.

"For me, the shirt means I am looking for acceptance," Couch said. "I want to be supported by the school, by my friends, by everybody. I do get picked on now and again, called faggot, queer."

The shirt has a greater message, Clark added.

"It's because that kind of name calling and bullying happens every day in high schools around the country," Clark said. "What gay and lesbian students figure out early on is that on some level, they have to take it, because otherwise, they're not going to make it through high school."

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