A gay high school student in Ohio who claims his freedom of expression was violated over a T-shirt is taking his school district to federal court.
Waynesville High School student Maverick Couch, 16, says he was threatened with suspension for wearing a T-shirt reading "Jesus Is Not A Homophobe" and bearing the Christian fish symbol. Couch wore the shirt last year in support of the "Day of Silence," an annual event sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network where students spend a day in silence to raise awareness of anti-gay bullying and harassment.
Couch, a sophomore, claims in his lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, that he was told by the school's principal, Randy Gebhardt, that the shirt was "indecent and sexual in nature" and had to be worn inside out.
Couch obliged but wore the shirt again the next day, prompting Gebhardt, Couch says, to threaten him with suspension if he wore the shirt again.
"When I was asked to remove my shirt on the day of silence last year, I was baffled," Couch said at a press conference in Cincinnati on Tuesday morning, reported by local affiliate WCPO. "I don't know how they see it as sexual, other than it having to do with sexual orientation."
Couch's mom filed the lawsuit on Tuesday on behalf of her son against the Wayne Local School District. The family is being represented by Christopher Clark, a senior staff attorney with Lambda Legal, the nation's largest and oldest organization defending the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and people with HIV, according to its website.
Clark told the Cincinnati Enquirer the family tried unsuccessfully to settle the dispute with school officials out of court. The lawsuit asks that Couch be allowed to wear the shirt and also asks for attorney fees and "nominal" damages, according to Clark.
The school district's superintendent, however, says officials were blindsided by the lawsuit.
"The only way we found out what was happening was that there was a press conference and I started phone calls from people in the press," Wayne Local School District superintendent, Patrick Dubbs, told ABCNews.com today.
"It needs to be stated this happened a year ago and it has not been an ongoing issue," he said. "We received one letter that came out of the clear blue months ago that asked us to please consider letting him wear this shirt that happened a year ago. We discussed it a board meeting and our attorney crafted a letter in response. The next notice we got was press calls about the lawsuit."
Dubbs confirmed that a conference call on which "progress was made towards resolving this" was held today between the federal judge overseeing the case, the school district's attorneys and the attorneys representing Couch. Dubbs would not say, however, what resolution school officials envisioned.
Couch's attorney Clark said on Tuesday that he did not anticipate the legal case being resolved ahead of the 2012 "Day of Silence," scheduled to be held again this year on April 20.
In the letter the school district's attorney, William Deters II, sent to Lambda Legal after they first contacted the school months ago, according to Dubbs, he defended the principal's actions.
"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," he wrote. "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."
The school principal, Gebhardt, is on spring break and not available for comment. Dubbs says he still supports Gebhardt's position.
"I support the principal because there was no discipline involved in this," he said. "The principal brought the student in because there had been some concerns from other students, and he simply asked the student if he would consider turning the shirt inside out or taking it off, and the student did so."
"It was simply a conversation between him and the student and it's not an unusual conversation to say, 'Hey let's talk about this before it becomes a huge issue,'" he said.
Couch, the only student he knows of who participates in the "Day of Silence," at Waynesville High, said on Tuesday that, for him, the shirt is more than just a statement.
"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."
Dubbs countered that the school district is not trying to take a position either way on the issue, but just trying to avoid distractions in order to educate its students.
"Maverick is an outstanding student. He's an outstanding kid," Dubbs said. "That's what's disappointing about this. He's a good kid who is supported here. I'm just not quite sure how this has gotten to this point."