Originally published on Advocate.com June 04 2004 12:00 AM ET
A San Diego County school district was sued on Wednesday for allegedly violating the civil rights of a student who was suspended for wearing a T-shirt reading "Homosexuality is shameful." A federal suit filed against the Poway Unified School District says Tyler Chase Harper was suspended for expressing his "sincerely held religious beliefs" during and after an April 21 "Day of Silence." During the national event participating high school and college students remain silent to show support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students. The suit was filed in U.S. district court in Los Angeles. "Because it's a legal matter, the district is unable to comment," said Sharon Raffer, spokeswoman for the 32,000-student school district.
Harper, 16, of Poway, is a sophomore at Poway High School. According to the suit, he is a Christian who believes that "homosexual behavior is immoral, damaging to the practitioners and to human society in general, and is demonstrably contrary to the teachings of the Bible." According to the suit, on April 21 he wore a T-shirt hand-lettered with the words "I will not accept what God has condemned" on the front and on the back it read "Homosexuality is shameful" and "Romans 1:27," a reference to a Bible passage. When he wore a similar shirt the next day, a classroom teacher told him that he was violating the school dress code and must remove the T-shirt or go to the office, according to the lawsuit.
The suit claims that the school's assistant principal said the shirt violated the dress code because its slogan was handwritten and "inflammatory" and that the teenager was suspended by the principal when he refused to remove it. The lawsuit also contends that a sheriff's deputy, whom it did not identify, told the student that the shirt "could encourage uprising and violence against homosexuals" and that a school vice principal said he must "leave his faith in the car." Poway High School's student policy handbook states that the dress code forbids "violence or hate behavior, including derogatory connotations directed toward sexual identity," according to the lawsuit, which continues on to say such a policy is too broad and vague. The school district policy forbids expressions of "racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice" that might create a "clear and present danger" of unlawful acts or disruption of school operations, the suit said. But it argued that Harper's messages did neither.
"When are public school officials going to learn they are not allowed to silence constitutionally protected
student speech just because they disagree with the student?" said a statement by Robert Tyler, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed the suit. The fund asked the court to bar the district and school from "selectively banning religious expression" and grant at least $25,000 in damages.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based defense fund provides funding, training, and legal aid to lawyers and others
to defend what it defines as "the legal battle for religious freedom, sanctity of life, and the
preservation of marriage and the family." The suit, which names the district and high school as well as
various officials, alleges violation of the student's rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and
equal protection of the law.