Fountain Valley High School Students Banned From Expressing Religious Message

( [email protected] ) Dec 15, 2003 12:00 PM EST

Huntington Beach Union High School District with 4 to 1 votes, decided last Tuesday not to allow students who were banned from their senior class yearbook photo for wearing T-shirts that conveyed religious promotional messages, to retake the picture and not to revise the district dress code to allow students to express religious beliefs by wearing clothing or jewelry.

District officials said schools have responsibility to separate church and state that what students express, if it is religious message, can be regulated. The school was in concern that the message would have dominated the photo of the seniors, which would tell the public that the school endorses that message as opposed to its being an individual student's belief.

During the Oct. 21 photo session, 11 students from a Christian club were asked to take off the shirts that they were wearing because Christian message such as “Jesus Is the Way” was written on the shirts. All 11 students walked out.

Since then, the students and the parents had requested the school to retake senior pictures with their Christian shirts with the help of an attorney from a nonprofit legal defense group specializing in religious freedom issues.

"What kept me going through all of high school's ups and downs was my faith in God," Katie Agbulos, a 17-year-old senior, told the board Tuesday night. "I wanted to express that."

"This kind of message does not affirm one's faith," said Joe McReynolds, 17, a senior at Fountain Valley High. "It forces one's expression on the entire senior class and says other faiths are wrong."

"I do not believe that this is a religious or freedom of speech issue," said Supt. Van W. Riley. "It's an issue of a school photo with some kind of statement in the front row that could reflect on the entire class. I don't think that's appropriate."

Board member Harper placed the dress code and photo items on Tuesday's agenda. He said students are allowed to express whatever religious beliefs they hold as long as the messages don’t disrupt learning. He also proposed allowing the students to wear clothing and jewelry that expressed their sincere religious faith.

"You need not share the beliefs of these students to want to defend their right to religious expression," Harper said.

"Where I think it would be common sense to respect students' right to wear religious clothing, apparently we need a board policy for guidance," Harper said before the meeting. "Otherwise, administrators will interpret the existing policy according to their whims and prejudices."