Ohio School Lets Gay Student Wear Controversial T-Shirt

Apr 5, 2012 3:04pm

Maverick Couch, the gay high school student who sued his Ohio school district for not allowing him to wear a T-shirt that read  ”Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” will be allowed to wear the shirt — for one day.

The school agreed to let Couch, 16, wear the T-shirt on April 20, the annual Day of Silence, dedicated to raising awareness of anti-gay bullying and harassment.

“He’s happy he’s going to be able to wear the shirt on April 20, but this suit is about his ongoing right to freedom of expression, and that should not be limited to a single day,” Christopher Clark, an attorney with Lambda Legal, the civil rights group defending Couch, told ABCNews.com today.  The school district has “not indicated whether they’ll back down from their overall position to not allow him to wear the shirt.

“The case goes on,” he said.

Couch, a sophomore, filed a lawsuit against the Wayne Local School District in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on Tuesday.  In a lawsuit that has grabbed national attention for what it could mean for a student’s First Amendment rights, Couch alleges that officials at Waynesville High School banned him from wearing the T-shirt on last year’s Day of Silence  and in the days that followed.

Couch says the school’s principal, Randy Gebhardt, who was also named in the suit, told him the shirt was  ”indecent and sexual in nature” and had to be worn inside out.  Couch complied but alleges taht when he tried to wear the shirt to school on subsequent days, Gebhardt threatened him with suspension.

“When I was asked to remove my shirt on the Day of Silence last year, I was baffled,” Couch said at a news conference last Tuesday,  as reported by ABC affiliate WCPO. “I don’t know how they see it as sexual, other than it having to do with sexual orientation.”

The lawsuit, which  Couch and his lawyers will continue to pursue, asks that Couch be allowed to wear the shirt, and payment for attorneys’ fees and “nominal” damages, said Clark.

The temporary resolution to the case came as both sides continued to argue over how the dispute escalated so far as to land in federal court.

The school district superintendent, Patrick Dubbs, told ABCNews.com Wednesday  that the district  had been blindsided by the lawsuit.

“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.”

Clark disagrees.

“The truth is, long before lawyers were involved, this young man [Couch] made numerous attempts in a respectful way to secure his right to wear the shirt.  On two occasions the school principal asked him to remove the shirt and then on several occasions after that, Maverick asked to wear the shirt and those requests were denied and he was threatened with suspension,” he said.

“Then we wrote a letter to the school district explaining what the law is regarding the First Amendment and expressed our hope that this ongoing violation of his First Amendment rights would stop,” said Clark.  “After that letter was sent, Maverick made several attempts to talk to the principal to find out if he was changing his position.  Instead we got the letter from the school district’s attorney that, in my opinion, in no uncertain terms, was the school district’s view that he could not wear the shirt because it was sexual in nature and therefore inappropriate.”

The case will proceed to a second telephone conference, scheduled to be held May 2, according to court records.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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