Gay student sues Ohio school district over T-shirt

Lisa Cornwell

CINCINNATI (AP) — A gay student whose high school prohibited him from wearing a T-shirt designed to urge tolerance of gays is suing the school, saying it’s violating his freedom of expression rights.

The mother of 16-year-old Maverick Couch filed the federal lawsuit on his behalf against Wayne Local School District and its Waynesville High School principal. Couch, a junior at the southwest Ohio high school, has been threatened by school officials with suspension if he wears the shirt, which bears the message “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe,” the lawsuit says. Officials at the public school told him the shirt is “sexual in nature” and is inappropriate there, it says.

Couch said Tuesday that he wants to wear the shirt at school on April 20 to show support for the Day of Silence, an annual event held nationally for students to draw attention to the silencing of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students through bullying and harassment.

“I’ve been bullied and called names, and I wanted to wear this shirt to promote respect for all students, gay or straight,” Couch said by telephone.

The lawsuit charges that the actions of officials in the school district, a 45-minute drive northeast of Cincinnati, violate Couch’s constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. It asks the U.S. District Court to order school officials to allow Couch to wear the shirt and to pay him unspecified “nominal” damages and attorneys’ fees.

District Superintendent Patrick Dubbs said Tuesday that he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on specifics, but he said he was “disappointed that it has gotten to this point.” A message left for Waynesville High School Principal Randy Gebhardt was not immediately returned.

Couch said Tuesday that he wore the shirt, which also bears the image of a rainbow-colored fish similar to a religious symbol used by Christians, last April and was told by the principal to turn it inside out. He said he complied but was told when he tried to wear it again that he would be suspended.

The civil rights group Lambda Legal, which is assisting Couch in the lawsuit, said it sent the principal a letter in January supporting Couch’s right to wear the shirt. The district’s response was that the message on the shirt is “sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting,” the lawsuit says.

Couch also said that he was told by school officials on other occasions that the shirt would be disruptive and that it was too religious.

“I don’t think it’s sexual or indecent,” Couch said. “I am just trying to stand up for who I am and for what I believe in.”

Lambda Legal attorney Christopher Clark said Couch tried to reach a solution without going to court but school officials would not cooperate.

“Schools should be in the business of educating students about First Amendment freedoms,” Clark said, “not trampling on their right to express themselves.”

The high school has more than 500 students in grades 9 through 12, according to its website.