ACLU claims students have right to wear religious shirts to school

Thursday, September 9, 1999

A Mississippi civil rights group is again seeking to prevent a public school district from enforcing a dress code policy that prohibits students from wearing religious symbols.

In mid-August the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi successfully persuaded the Harrison County School Board in Gulfport to alter a gang-policy that forbade a Jewish student from wearing a Star of David necklace on school grounds. The district's policy prohibited students from wearing anything that could be construed as a gang symbol.

Now the civil rights group is preparing to argue before a federal judge in Biloxi that two students at St. Martin High School in Jackson County are being denied their religious-liberty and speech rights because they aren't allowed to wear shirts with Christian messages to school. In late August, the Jackson County School Board refused to allow the brothers to wear shirts with an ichthus on the front and the words “Jesus Loves Me” on back.

The students' father, Bo Alawine, presented the shirts to the school board and argued that his family's religious beliefs were being violated by the school board. According to the ACLU's complaint, school officials said that under the district's uniform policy, the students may not wear any unapproved shirts, whatever their message.

The ACLU's federal complaint filed in mid-August alleges that the school board's action infringes on the students' free exercise of religion and speech rights.

“Students should not be forced to leave their religious speech at the schoolhouse door,” David Ingebretsen, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said. “The school district's uniform policy should allow for the right of students to express their religious and political viewpoints.”

Although a hearing in the case is set for Oct. 8, the school board has filed a motion with the court seeking dismissal of the lawsuit. Officials with the school district would not talk to the First Amendment Center about the case. Thomas Tootle, school board president, told the Sun Herald, a Biloxi/Gulfport daily, that the board did not believe the brothers' religious shirts complied with the uniform policy.

According to guidelines issued by the Clinton administration, “Schools enjoy substantial discretion in adopting policies relating to student dress and school uniforms.” However, those guidelines, which were issued to public school districts nationwide in 1995, also state that “schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation,” and that “students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages.”