Ohio student sues after school bans pro-gay shirt

OHIO — AWaynesville High School junior and his mother are suing the Wayne Local School District claiming the district violated his First and Fourteenth Amendmentrights by preventing him from wearing a T-shirt with the statement “Jesus isNot a Homophobe.”

Maverick Couch was threatened with suspension in April 2011for wearing a T-shirt with the statement and a rainbow-colored Ichthys symbol,also known as the Jesus fish. The district claims the shirt is “indecent andinappropriate.”

Couch wore the shirt to support the Day of Silence in April2011, according to the complaint. The Day of Silence is a student-led event toraise awareness about bullying and harassment of LGBT students. Studentsinvolved usually take a vow of silence for the day.

According to the lawsuit, Principal Randy Gephardt twicetold Couch to remove the shirt or turn it inside out.

Couch is represented by Christopher Clark of Lambda Legal,an LGBT rights organization. In January, Clark sent a letter to the districtarguing that the shirt ban violates Couch’s First Amendment rights. The schooldistrict’s attorney, William Deters, responded in a Feb. 24 letter.

“[T]he message communicated by the student’s T-shirt wassexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting,”Deters wrote in the letter. “Wayne Local School District Board of Education hadthe right to limit clothing with sexual slogans, especially in light what wasthen a highly charged atmosphere, in order to protect its students and enhancethe educational environment.”

After Couch filed suit Tuesday, the district agreed to lethim wear his shirt on April 20 for the 2012 Day of Silence — but only on thatday.

Deters did not respond to requests for comment. Clark couldnot be reached for comment, but in a Lambda Legal press release late Wednesdayhe said the lawsuit would continue.

“We’re glad that Maverick is able to wear his shirt on April20,” Clark said in the release. “However, a student’s First Amendment rightsare not restricted to one day of the year — we will continue to fight untilMaverick is allowed to express who he is on any day he chooses.”

According to court documents, Couch claims Gephardt’sreasons for prohibiting the shirt changed. At first he said it was disruptive, butat a later meeting he allegedly said it was religious and that “religion and state haveto be separate.”

Couch is seeking nominal damages, a declaration that thedistrict violated his rights and a court order allowing him to wear the T-shirtas he pleases.