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SBC LIFE (ISSN 1081-8189), Volume 25, Number 4, © 2017 Southern Baptist Convention, Executive Committee


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 meeting."

"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 Cockroach.

"So what's the answer, Johnny?"

"Well," drawls Johnny, "Whaddaya want the answer to be?"

"On second thought," Pastor Paul pauses, "I think I'll call on Marsha Dillon. She specializes in First Amendment law."

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 pastor.

"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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