LGBT t-shirt cause for suit against Ohio school


A Waynesville High School student is suing the school for discrimination.

On Tuesday, Lambda Legal and the teen's mother filed papers in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio against Wayne Local School District in Waynesville, Ohio. Court documents also named the high school's principal as a defendant. The suit was filed on behalf of Maverick Couch, an openly gay junior who was threatened with suspension if he wears a T-shirt bearing the message "Jesus Is Not a Homophobe."

"I could no longer express how I felt at school," junior Maverick Couch said. "School should be a place that all students feel safe and comfortable, a place where all students can come to learn and accept each other. When those rights are taken away it's not ok."

The district's superintendent said they were unaware until Tuesday morning that Couch and his lawyers had planned to take the matter to court. Beyond that, the superintendent denied comment on the lawsuit.

As of Tuesday evening the district's attorney had not returned calls for comment.

Last April, Maverick wore a T-shirt with a rainbow sign of the fish with the "Jesus Is Not a Homophobe" slogan underneath in observation of National Day of Silence which aims to raise awareness about bullying and harassment of the LGBT community.

The suit claims the school principal, Randy Gebhardt, called Maverick into his office and instructed him to turn the T-shirt inside out; Maverick complied. Court document say Couch then made one more attempt to wear the shirt and was again threatened with suspension.

Over the summer, Maverick further researched his First Amendment rights, and when school resumed in the fall of 2011, he approached the school principal seeking permission to wear the T-shirt. Couch says his request was denied.

In January 2012, Lambda Legal sent a letter to Mr. Gebhardt outlining the legal precedent supporting Maverick's right to wear the shirt, to which the school district issued the response, "the message communicated by the student's T-shirt is sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting."

The February letter from the district's lawyer sited precedents set by previous court cases to support their position. It stated, 'students' right to free speech is not absolute' and that 'public schools have a responsibility to instill moral values in students and provide students with an understanding of socially acceptable behavior'.

The letter goes on to say the 'Board of Education had the right to limit clothing with sexual slogans, especially in what was then a highly charged atmosphere'.

"To suggest that it is offensive, inappropriate or sexual is really sort of demeaning to the message that I think Maverick was trying to communicate last year on the day of silence," Couch's attorney Christopher Clark argued.

"I don't think it is sexual in nature or indecent at all," defended Couch.

In the papers filed in court on Tuesday, Lambda Legal argues that the Waynesville School District violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech. It also alleges the actions taken to prevent Couch from wearing the T-shirt infringe on his rights under the 14th Amendment for equal protection under the law.

Lambda has asked the court to issue an injunction prohibiting the school from 'further interference with Maverick's First Amendment rights.'

"I've been bullied and called names, I wanted to wear the T-shirt to encourage respect for all students, gay or straight" said Maverick Couch. "I wish my school would help me create an accepting environment for LGBT kids, not single me out for punishment."

Couch and his lawyer are hoping a judge will grant a restraint that would allow him to wear the T-shirt for this year's Day of Silence observation on April 20.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, gave a statement in response to this case saying, "We are encouraged by the recent decision of the Wayne Local School District to allow openly gay student Maverick Couch to wear his T-shirt in support of GLSEN's National Day of Silence on April 20, 2012. But this student-led day of action is designed to raise long-term awareness and support for schools to take concrete steps toward ensuring that all students enjoy a safe and respectful school environment. The values behind the Day of Silence should be recognized and acted upon year-round. Maverick and his family have shown incredible courage in standing up for what they believe in. We hope officials at Wayne Local School District develop similar understanding and commitment to making sure that all students deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. GLSEN and its Greater Cincinnati and Dayton chapters will continue to extend our support to Maverick and his family as they continue to see this lawsuit through under the direction of our friends at Lambda Legal."

GLSEN encourages students experiencing similar resistance to the Day of Silence to report it on their website. GLSEN is a national education organization with the goal of having every child learn to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

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