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On a school day this spring, thousands of pro-life students across the country plan to wear a T-shirt that recently was banned by a principal who equated it with displaying a swastika.
Under the threat of legal action, Neal McCarthy, principal of the public Abington Jr. High School in Abington, Pa., reversed his decision to ban an honor student’s shirt he deemed to be inappropriate.
Pro-life shirt worn by Pennsylvania student. (Photo used with permission)
The shirt bears the messages, “Abortion is Homicide. You will not silence my message. You will not mock my God. You will stop killing my generation. Rock for Life,” according to the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which challenged the school policy.
The producer of the shirt, Rock for Life, a project of the American Life League, has planned a “National Pro-Life T-shirt Day” for April 28. The group says its goal is “to have every pro-life student in America wear a pro-life T-shirt to school” on that day.
“You have a constitutional right to free speech in your public school,” the group says on its website. “Exercise that right by making the sanctity of human life the dominant message in your school on April 28.”
‘Like a swastika’
Last November, McCarthy told the student wearing the shirt that he must either cover it or turn it inside out. Edward White, associate counsel of the Thomas More center, told WND that the student and his mother, who brought the complaint, did not want to be identified.
The student decided to turn the shirt inside out, but his mother raised the matter with McCarthy, who told her the message was inappropriate for display at school.
McCarthy did not return calls to his office by WND.
According to White, the principal said that the pro-life message was the equivalent of a swastika being displayed on a shirt, which he would not allow in school. The mother then contacted the Thomas More Law Center.
White sent a four-page letter to school officials on Jan. 22, insisting that the student had a constitutional right to wear his pro-life clothing and demanding that the school provide written assurance that he will be permitted to wear the shirt to school.
The legal group contended that the student’s speech did not cause any substantial and material disruptions to the workings of the school and that there was no legal basis on which to restrict his speech. It also stated that the mother and son would have the option of seeking relief in federal court if the school did not reverse its decision by Jan. 31.
“Too often public school officials forget that the First Amendment protects student pro-life messages,” White said. “We are pleased that the school has quickly corrected its mistake and has acknowledged our client’s First Amendment right to wear the pro-life T-shirt to school.”
‘Where can I get one?’
White said a school might have a legitimate objection if a T-shirt caused a significant disruption. He notes there have been instances in which a Confederate flag shirt led to ongoing fist fights. But in the many cases of pro-life T-shirts he has handled, he is not aware of any that have caused a disruption. The complaint often has originated with an administrator who happens to come across it after the student has been wearing the shirt to school for some time.
Signs at pro-life rally in Washington, D.C.
Though some complaints come from students, most are tolerant, he said.
“You’re going to have kids who say, ‘Great, where can I get one?'” said White. “Others will disagree, but even the ones who disagree will acknowledge the right to wear the shirt – ‘I may not like his message, but I want the same right to wear my message.'”
Rock for Life assistant director Sara McKalips told WND that she did not consider the Abington Jr. High School student’s T-shirt, produced by her group, to be provocative.
“A swastika is a symbol of hate and discrimination,” she said, “and this T-shirt is sharing a message of truth and life.”
White said he finds pro-life kids often are singled out by administrators, while kids wearing shirts displaying messages from shock rockers such as Marilyn Manson, or Playboy bunny T-shirts, “usually get a pass.”
White said his group was contacted last year by about 25 or 30 families who had a student confronted by school officials for a pro-life T-shirt. The students usually are “good kids,” he said, such as the honor student at Abington Jr. High.
“We’ve always had success once we explain the student’s constitutional rights,” said White.
Some parents don’t want to pursue the case because the student is afraid of a backlash.
“But when students are supported by the parents, we go forward,” White said. “We’ve had parents who were pro-choice stand behind their pro-life kids.”
Letter in hand
Rock for Life’s McKalips said she expects opposition to the “National Pro-life T-Shirt Day,” which her group plans to make an annual event. The organization will make available to the students a letter produced by the Thomas More Law Center that outlines their First Amendment rights.
March for Life rally last week in Washington.
She said her group has received a good response from students and from schools, mostly Catholic, that want to participate in the event.
Rock for Life’s 90 local chapters throughout the country are contacting public schools, she said, and encouraging the principals to support the students who participate.
Many members of the Rock for Life chapters volunteer at local Crisis Pregnancy Clinics, she added.
Brian Burch, a spokesman for Thomas More, said he thinks opposition to the pro-life T-shirt day will be minimal.
“I would hope that schools are aware that the pro-life message is protected by the First Amendment just like any other message,” he said. “These shirts are worn by thousands of kids, and, for the most part, I don’t think people have a problem.
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