December 1995 Issue
by Michael Whitehead
As he walks to Wednesday night dinner, Pastor Paul reads the
phone message again: "Complaint at high school: Christian
teens can't wear t-shirts at school. See Red Moore before prayer
"T-Shirts?" ponders the pastor. "I guess now
the ACLU wants to regulate our underwear. They'll call it Separation
of Shirt and State."
At Wednesday night dinner, Pastor Paul sees Red Moore, who
tells him: "Yesterday, my son, Red Jr., went to high school
wearing a t-shirt with a Bible verse on it. A teacher told him
that such religious language at a public school violated the separation
of church and state. She said not to wear religious messages or
anything that might offend someone. Is that legal?"
"Let me check into this," says the pastor. Back in
his study, he calls his golfing buddy and local attorney Johnny
"So what's the answer, Johnny?"
"Well," drawls Johnny, "Whaddaya want the answer
"On second thought," Pastor Paul pauses, "I
think I'll call on Marsha Dillon. She specializes in First Amendment
Marsha focuses on the facts. Are students generally prohibited
from wearing t-shirts? Then the t-shirt ban is lawful. But Pastor
Paul reports that t-shirts are not prohibited, nor are messages
on them everything from Smashing Pumpkins to Save the Planet.
In that case, Marsha says, the school must not discriminate against
the content or viewpoint of the message due to its religious character.
That would amount to censorship and discrimination against religious
expression, which the Supreme Court has clearly prohibited.
Marsha asks if the message on the
t-shirt was in any way disruptive of good order and discipline,
more so than the other t-shirts worn by other students. "Not
at all," replies the pastor. "It just says, 'May the
peace of the Lord disturb you. Read Romans 12:18-20.'"
"Well, the Supreme Court has not specifically taken a
t-shirt case," cautioned Marsha, "and I have given up
on trying to predict with certainty what judges or juries might
decide. But I believe, based on the facts you've presented, the
school cannot lawfully discriminate against Reed's religious message
on his t-shirt."
"Didn't I hear that the U.S. Department of Education just
issued some guidelines about religion in schools?" asks the
"Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I have a copy of the guidelines
right here," says Marsha as she reaches into her in-box.
"The president issued these guidelines to describe what is
permitted under current case law, and he mailed them to every
school district. Some folks think he was playing politics and
trying to defuse the drive for a constitutional amendment. At
any rate, the president, and even some groups like the ACLU, have
admitted the lawfulness of some things that they had never admitted
before. Take a look at this section."
"Student garb. Students may display religious messages
on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted
to display other comparable messages. Religious messages may not
be singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the
same rules as generally apply to comparable messages."
"It also says the Religious Freedom Restoration Act might
apply. If you are into case names, the Tinker vs. Des Moines case
and this year's Rosenberger decision have some language that also
support my position. Do you want to write those down?"
"No, if you'll just put all that down in a letter addressed
to me, I will mail it with a cover letter to the school principal
and give a copy to Red Moore next Wednesday night before prayer
meeting. Thanks for your help, Marsha Dillon. You're a straight
shooter," Pastor Paul punned.
Marsha Dillon watches him leave, and wonders if a constitutional
amendment expressly protecting student religious expression might
help to avoid many of these problems. She also wonders how different
life might have been if she had remained in law enforcement.
For more information about student rights to engage in religious
expression at public schools, pastors, parents and public school
officials may call the Christian Life Commission at 202-547-8105.
Michael Whitehead is the general counsel
for the Christian Life Commission and director of Christian citizenship
and religious liberty concerns. Starting January 1, he will become
vice president for business affairs at Midwestern Seminary.
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