Sixth-grader’s religious T-shirt disrupted school, principal says

Friday, November 13, 1998

An Ohio elementary school student was sent home after refusing to rid himself of a T-shirt proclaiming his Christian faith.

On Nov. 10, Richard Feliciano, a sixth-grader at Hawthorne Elementary in Loraine, was yanked from school by his principal for wearing a “Born To Raze Hell” T-shirt. Principal Loretta Jones told the sixth-grader that the shirt's wording was distracting other students. The principal cited a school policy against clothing that disrupts the school day.

“The other children thought he had a cuss word on his shirt and it was distracting from class,” Jones told the Morning Journal, Loraine's daily paper. “I can't follow the policy for one student and not another.”

Richard told the newspaper that he bought the shirt at a Christian gathering and wore it to school because he is proud of his religious faith.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union plans to contact the school regarding the situation. Gary Daniels, the Ohio ACLU litigation coordinator, said the group would send a letter to the school on behalf of Richard and his parents warning officials that their action was unconstitutional.

“It does not appear to us that the school's pedagogical concerns outweigh this kid's right to religious expression,” Daniels said. “Usually in these types of situations, there never seems to be a disruption among the students. Instead, the disruption occurs, when a principal or administrator starts to make an issue out of it.”

Daniels added that it was more difficult to challenge a school's decision to bar a student from wearing a Marilyn Manson T-shirt — the glam-rock star, made infamous by Christian fundamentalists — than to question a school ban against highly protected First Amendment speech.

“This situation is different, because it centers on constitutional speech with a religious component,” Daniels said. “We see his wearing of the T-shirt as an expression of his right to religious liberty.”

Last year, a federal court in Texas found unconstitutional the suspension from a public high school of two teen-agers who wore their rosary beads to school. The U.S. District court ruled that the school authorities had subverted the students' rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

In 1995, after consulting an array of religious-liberty experts and civil rights groups, President Clinton and the U.S. Department of Education published and disseminated guidelines for religious expression in the public schools. The guidelines reflect federal court rulings on the proper role for religion in public schools.

Regarding student garb, the guidelines 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.”

Jones, the Hawthorne Elementary principal, told the Morning Journal that other students with inappropriate messages or words on their shirts, including some involving Manson and professional wrestlers, have also been told to change shirts or go home.