Officials from a California high school shut down a group of Christian seniors’ attempt to declare their faith in the class yearbook photo, sparking the involvement of a legal group claiming the students’ constitutional rights were violated.

Thirteen 12th-graders at Fountain Valley High School arranged to wear T-shirts to the senior-class photo shoot last month that spelled out “Jesus is the way” and “Jesus [heart] U,” with a cross on each side.

The students lined up in the front row to be sure their message was seen in the photo. Fountain Valley High School Vice Principal Ted Reid, however, stepped in, asking the teens to either rearrange themselves, turn around or stand in the back, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Because several of the students could not immediately change their shirts or turn them inside out, they were not able to appear in the photo.

The students and their parents believe their freedom of speech has been unlawfully violated and are asking that the photo be redone with the 650 seniors – and with the Jesus messages intact.

“We wanted to express how important Christianity is in our lives,” said Alex Lopez, 17, told the Times. “We weren’t trying to impose our beliefs on others.”

The Pacific Justice Institute, a legal-defense group specializing in religious freedom issues, sent a letter to the Huntington Beach Union High School District on behalf of the students asking that the photo be reshot. The paper reports the district’s legal counsel is expected to respond by today to the request.

Education officials are concerned the message in the yearbook could have been construed as being endorsed by the school.

“If they had ‘Jesus loves you’ on their own shirt, that would have been just fine,” assistant superintendent Carol Osbrink told the paper. “An individual student has the right to express their own personal opinion and their own beliefs.”

She says group speech is another story: “That says to the public that the school endorses that message, as opposed to being the beliefs of an individual student.”

The administration’s action amounts to anti-religious censorship, said attorney Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute.

“This is nothing less than the school being hostile toward student faith,” Dacus said. “For these students, who hold their beliefs very dear to them, it sends the message that this is the land of the free – unless you have strong religious convictions.”

Dacus told WorldNetDaily he hoped the district would not force the parents to file suit, saying he believed the district’s attorneys “will come to the same conclusion” his group did.

“What they’ve done is selectively censored student speech,” he said. “If the message had been ‘California loves you,’ they wouldn’t have a problem.”

A statement on PJI’s website said, “School officials did not exclude [from the photo] several students who wore clothes with visible name brands or logos or Muslim students who wore headscarves.”

Said Dacus: “It seems fairly clear that school officials at FVHS have not only violated the free-speech and religious free-exercise rights of various students, they have violated the often misunderstood and misapplied ‘separation between church and state’ doctrine by discriminatorily allowing one group of students to wear their religious clothing, but disallowing another group from wearing theirs.”

The students who wore the shirts are members of the campus club Brothers and Sisters in Christ.

Lopez points out the school has no clothing rules for students posing in the senior class photo.

“If we knew the rules beforehand, we could have done something differently and still gotten our point across,” he told the Times.

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