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Anti-Gay T-Shirt Wars

Timothy Kincaid

February 13th, 2008

The Alliance Defense Fund is a legal arm of the social conservative movement. They are also the founders and promoters of the Day of Truth, an effort on school campuses to “counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda”. The DOT grew out of efforts to oppose the Day of Silence, a program by gay students and their friends and allies to bring attention to how heterosexism and homophobia silence the voices of the LGBT minority.

The Day of Truth walks a careful line. While they talk about “tolerance for opposing viewpoints” (their anti-gay viewpoints, primarily) and claim that there is “freedom to change”, they stop short of outright attacks on gay students.

But this is not because they want to avoid such attacks. Indeed, the Alliance Defense Fund would like little more than to teach hostility to homosexuality and silence anyone who disagrees. But school boards have restricted the ability of anti-gay students to publicly condemn their fellow students.

ADF is not happy.

They sued.

The best known of these cases is that of Tyler Chase Harper. Young Mr. Harper wore a T-Shirt to his school in the Poway Unified School District in response to the 2004 Day of Silence. His eloquent message was Homosexuality Is Shameful, Romans 1:27″. That didn’t get Harper enough attention, so the next day he ratcheted up his message to “Be Ashamed” and “Our School Embraced What God Has Condemned.”

On the second day, school administrators told him that he could not wear a message that was overtly hostile to other students and asked him to remove the statement – which had been added to his plain black T-Shirt with masking tape. Harper refuse and, with the help of ADF, sued his school. (One can’t help but wonder what Harper would have worn the next day if this message did not get his desired result).

The judge found that Harper did not have a case. ADF appealed.

In 2006, a three judge appeals panel found that “the school is permitted to prohibit Harper’s conduct…if it can demonstrate that the restriction was necessary to prevent either the violation of the rights of other students or substantial disruption of school activities.” But they did not rule on the case itself.

In August 2006, the Ninth Circuit appeals court denied en banc review (review by all of the judges). This time the decision was in more direct language.

“Hate speech, whether in the form of a burning cross, or in the form of a call for genocide, or in the form of a tee shirt misusing biblical text to hold gay students to scorn, need not under Supreme Court decisions be given the full protection of the First Amendment in the context of the school environment, where administrators have a duty to protect students from physical or psychological harms.”

In their quest to equate the statement “treat all students with fairness” to “condemn some students based on one’s own religious beliefs”, ADF continued with their lawsuit to overturn restrictions on hostile messages in an environment in which attendance is compulsory. But by the time that the case made its way to the US Supreme Court, Chase Harper graduated and the decision was moot.

However Chase Harper’s little sister Kelsie discovered that she too had a burning drive to condemn her fellow students and the lawsuit was transferred to her.

ADF asked the judge to reconsider his ruling throwing out the case. U.S. District Judge John Houston issued his ruling today. Not surprisingly, he hadn’t changed his mind.

He wrote that a school “interest in protecting homosexual students from harassment is a legitimate pedagogical concern that allows a school to restrict speech expressing damaging statements about sexual orientation and limiting students to expressing their views in a positive manner.”

Interestingly, the ADL is supported by that organization most hated by social conservatives, the American Civil Liberties Union.

David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said the case is troubling. The ACLU filed a brief in support of Harper’s speech rights – siding with the religious groups that they are often at odds with.

“This theory is a novel and extreme expansion of a school’s rights to limit speech,” Blair-Loy said. Schools potentially could ban any speech they say is “psychologically damaging.”

“And let’s face it: What about high school is not psychologically damaging?” Blair-Loy said. “This student wore a T-shirt that expressed an idea. It’s an idea we don’t agree with at the ACLU, but that is the essence of free speech. It’s not just for ideas you like.”

In the midst of this battle in the Great American Culture War Against Gay People, I think something is being forgotten by both sides. Any ruling that allows social conservatives to attack gay people… also allows other students to attack religion.

If messages are allowed that condemn homosexuality on religious terms, then would not messages that condemn religion on terms of orientation be allowed? Surely they could not disallow “Christianity is a Hateful Religion and those who follow it are Homophobes and Bigots”.

And is it then a far reach from “Homosexuality Is Shameful” to “Catholicism is Idolatry” or “Speaking in Tongues is Satanic”? Would Jews be accused of “killing our Savior”? Would a school with a small Muslim minority be force to subject those students to T-Shirts attacking their faith?

This is not without precedent. In 1984 religious activists pushed the Equal Access Act through Congress so as to allow Bible Clubs on school campuses. It said that if a school allows ANY non-curricular organizations to meet, it has to all ALL non-curricular organizations to meet. This is the piece of legislation that protects Gay-Straight Alliances from being banned by homophobic school administrations – a consequence that Bible Club backers did not intend.

I doubt that ADF or those who support them have thought about the eventual results of their efforts. But, then again, this is a great fund raiser for ADF and I doubt they much care. After all, an anti-Christian T-shirt on some campus would give them another lawsuit for which to request funds and issue press releases.



Erica B.
February 13th, 2008 | LINK

This is no more appropriate than a white kid wearing a racist t-shirt, or any of the other possible religious examples you mentioned. I can not STAND people who think this way. I’d ask, “what were his parents thinking letting him go out of the house like that” — but since his sister pulled the same shit, they probably helped him put the tape on.

A side note: Was “Surely they could not disallow” supposed to be “could not allow”?

Lisa Rayner
February 13th, 2008 | LINK

I am a supporter of the ACLU, but I am troubled by their interpretation of this incident. While the t-shirt in question is phrased in a general way, it is also clearly a form of harassment aimed at other students. Harassment is not a form of free speech. In addition, people subjected to the speech have the right to avoid it — by walking away, turning off the TV, etc. School is compulsory and students are legal minors who cannot choose to attend a different school without their parents’ approval. Those factors would seem to negate the free speech claim.

Regan DuCasse
February 13th, 2008 | LINK

There is a difference between the religious ideology one chooses and the sexual orientation one doesn’t. Those who are Christian are not in any physical danger, do not have their property vandalized or their peace in school disrupted.
Gay students are at risk of all these things. It would not KILL those children to NOT express themselves exclusively and directly towards gay kids.
Which it looks like they are targeting alone.
And why are not these religious children as equally worked up at directing their religious expression at the divorced, adulterers or those who use birth control and are having unmarried sex?
Why doesn’t the ADF encourage such expression as well?
Notice that what the Bible also condemns, no one seems to want to confront anyone else, BUT homosexual kids.

Lesson here people…it’s the discriminatory way in which their ideology is applied AND the selective way of whom they are targeting to express it.
Perhaps the law isn’t or can’t be applied regarding expression.
But I would encourage those who want to preserve these kid’s first amendment rights to have at it. Express away, but ONLY if they target EVERYONE their religion also does.

That is the way the law is supposed to work.
Unless the ADF is also targeting other laws not connected to homosexuality, I would have more respect for them and their goals.
But we know what they are doing. Which is what makes their declarations of religious motive ring phony.

Ben in Oakland
February 13th, 2008 | LINK

Substitute the word “jew” for the word”gay” and you’ll see what happens.

February 13th, 2008 | LINK

You wonder why that group is so obsessed with this. I guess it gets them a lot of attention and money.

Suricou Raven
February 14th, 2008 | LINK

How the ADF hopes this will work:

1. Get the student a right right express his homophobia.
2. In the process, give all the other students a right to express their support of homosexuality.
3. Wait for the latter group of students to get beaten up by the former.
4. Explain that the latter group was disrupting the school by wearing tshirts that would incite others to attack them.

I know of many cases of dedicated anti-gays physically attacking gay people or those who support them. I know of two cases of the reverse situation, and both of those were in the face of heavy provocation and taunting.

February 14th, 2008 | LINK

(*Screams inside)
The world is broken

February 14th, 2008 | LINK

In defense of the ADF’s position, the T-shirt didn’t target a particular individual and apparently didn’t cause disruption.

Of course, the student’s opinion is disgusting, but the First Amendment protects disgusting opinions. Some people would take offense at a student wearing a cross on the ground that Christians believe non-Christians deserve to go to Hell, or at a student wearing a headscarf because it symbolizes the oppression of women.

Yes, the principle put forward by the ADF/ACLU would allow for a shirt calling Catholics idolators, and yes, I’m fine with that (although I doubt the ADF is). Few people would back banning a T-shirt that insults the Republican or Democratic parties. Insults to religion are the same thing.

Erica B.
February 14th, 2008 | LINK

@tilts_at_windmills: Insulting religion (or orientation) doesn’t really compare to. In any case, I would back a ban of a T-shirt that said “Republicans should die” or “Democrats are abominations”.

Children go to school for an education. As Lisa points out, they can’t just leave if disgusting opinions are spoken (or worn) around them. Growing up is hard enough without being forced to endure adult moral/ethical arguments. I’m not suggesting that they can’t understand them, or shouldn’t think about them — but limiting extremist expression in a school setting is something that I fully support.

Having a conversation after daughter was told in preschool, “Santa doesn’t bring presents to bad children” and explaining she wouldn’t get Christmas presents because she’s Jewish, not because she’s naughty — that sort of cultural confusion I expect, and I can handle. I would hope that any school district we are in has the backbone to prevent any more serious antisemitism, either by teachers or students, from occurring. And if it turns out she likes girls more than boys, they’d better protect her from the homophobes too.

February 15th, 2008 | LINK

You need to read the case. There were several disruptions, as the Harpers hoped there would be. Harper was not disciplined for wearing the shirt, merely moved to an area where it was unlikely to provoke other students. There was a history of oppressing GLBT students at the school; several students were in off-campus programs because of the harassment. The school administration went out of their way to accommodate Harper, who was spoiling for some sort of punishment to bring a suit, but the school didn’t take the bait.

And what has this to do with spreading the good news of the Gospel? Nothing!

The ADF is a self-promoting, lying hate-group.

June 26th, 2008 | LINK

There is something seriously wrong with this world. Let the kids wear what they want. They will have to deal with homosexuality in the real world, why should they not experience it early, and get it over with?

June 14th, 2009 | LINK

When gay people can have a day of silence and its ok with school officials and everyone else and no one has a problem and considered free speech. But when a person decides to have the day of truth everyone is panicking. You cannnot have total free speech and equality if one agenda is being pushed and another agenda being silenced off. Free speech comes from both sides if it doesnt then we will soon become a nation of chaos. Neither the day of silence nor the day of truth should be in schools but if the day of silence is in schools then the day of truth should have a place in school too.

March 21st, 2011 | LINK

i think that this is really ignorant…at a student who has participated in the day of silence i dont understand the point of opposing it…its not like we’re doing anything to you by not talking…we are simply making a statement…it is not anti-straight day or anything…its just to simplify the struggle of silence that millions of homosexuals go through so that nobody “condems” them…and if you cant respect that then you my dear are going against god.

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