The Lesson of the ‘Jesus Is Not a Homophobe’ T-Shirt

How did a slogan endorsing compassion and tolerance get turned into indecency?

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Lambda Legal / AP

Maverick Couch in Cincinnati on April 3, 2012

Good news for Ohio’s gay and lesbian students: You can be openly gay once a year now that Wayne Local School District officials have granted a small concession, after a little nudge from a lawsuit, and cleared Maverick Couch, 16, to wear his “Jesus is not a homophobe” T-shirt to school exactly one time.

The boy tried to wear his T-shirt, which features a colorful Christian fish logo, at last year’s Day of Silence in recognition of gay students who have been bullied. The school district’s attorney explained in a letter to Lambda that the T-shirt was “sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting,” Well, that’s one view. Couch and his family saw it differently. “For me, the shirt means I am looking for acceptance,” Couch explained. “I want to be supported by the school, by my friends, by everybody. I do get picked on now and again, called faggot, queer.”

The high school junior told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he couldn’t understand the school’s reaction: “I don’t think the T-shirt is sexual at all. I don’t know how they can say that. I don’t think it’s indecent.” He’s absolutely right, of course; it’s a poignant Christian affirmation of the humanity in all of us. The banned T-shirt is indecent and sexual only if you choose to reduce gay people, any more than heterosexuals, to a collection of bodily orifices and behaviors, rather than view them as whole, complex people.

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But that, unfortunately, is the problem troubling so many gay youth today. As we’ve seen from “It Gets Better” campaigns and, most recently, the devastating indictment of childhood cruelty in the documentary Bully, kids who are gay (or suspected, correctly or incorrectly, of being gay) are subject to persecution at school that stems from being viewed as somehow not fully human.

Free-speech cases can be vexing, so it’s important to put this one in perspective. Would we have seen the same outcome if a teenage boy had come to a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration wearing a T-shirt with a Christian fish symbol and the words “Jesus is not a racist”? Or a girl giving a social-studies presentation on the 19th Amendment of the Constitution (granting women the right to vote) wearing a “Jesus is not a sexist” shirt? I doubt it. After all, “students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the U.S. Supreme Court famously ruled 7–2 in 1969 in allowing Mary Tinker to wear a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War.

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But the Waynesville school defended its decision “especially in what was then a highly-charged atmosphere, in order to protect its students and enhance the educational environment,” according to the attorney’s statement.

Whoa, that last sentence is a real showstopper. Highly charged atmosphere? How so, exactly? Because the spotlight was turned, for a brief time, to the suffering of gay students? Why does anyone in the U.S. still think that certain kinds of citizens need approval to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? This case is not about a T-shirt but a recognition that our Constitution is indifferent to our feelings about gay people. It doesn’t care if someone thinks homosexuals are living in sin. It cares that we all play fair. And for those feeling a little cavalier about America’s founding principles, Jesus offers similar advice.

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There may be legitimate reasons to limit self-expression and speech in public schools on occasion. In Morse v. Frederick, the infamous “bong hits for Jesus” case, Justice Roberts, speaking for the majority, noted that the student’s self-expression was outweighed by the school’s antidrug policy.

But Couch was not endorsing illegal behavior; he was endorsing compassion and basic decency. The school officials appear to have been genuinely baffled by this turn of events and don’t understand how such an “outstanding student, an outstanding kid,” in Principal Dobbs’ words, could have “gotten to this point.” But cluelessness can be just as corrupting as hatred.

Is it really asking too much for the adults in whose care Couch is entrusted to try to understand what it’s like for gay youth to live in this world? And while we’re waiting for that miracle … some of these kids are killing themselves. Jesus is not a homophobe, and amen to that.

MORE: TIME’s April 16 Cover Story, “Rethinking Heaven.”