ACLU Defends High School Student’s Anti-Gay T-Shirt

On Friday, April 20th — the Day of Silence — Wolcott High School junior Seth Groody wore this image on the front of his shirt:

That’s a rainbow with a slash through it… basically summing up Groody’s attitude toward homosexuality.

The administrators at his school told him to change his shirt. He protested, saying he had a right to wear it. He wasn’t discriminating against individuals, which could be illegal at a high school. This was protesting an idea; it was free speech; it was freedom of expression.

Then, the ACLU got involved… and said Groody was right:

“The First Amendment was written to protect unpopular speech, which is naturally the kind of speech that will always need protection,” said Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “The ACLU has fought hard for same-sex marriage and we couldn’t agree with Seth less on that issue, but he is absolutely correct about his right to express his opinion.”

Staub likened this shirt’s message (PDF) to another one which also passed a Constitutional challenge — that message read, “Be Happy, Not Gay.” (And, incidentally, that battle involved the high school I currently work at.)

That message was allowed because it, too, didn’t “demean individuals,” according to the courts. (Meanwhile, a shirt that said “Homosexuality is Shameful” was allowed to be banned because you could argue it was a direct attack on a person’s sexual orientation.)

Is it a fine line? Absolutely. I think you could argue that a rainbow with a slash through it is a personal attack on gay students, but the ACLU lawyers felt it would survive a challenge in the courts, and they (perhaps with a heavy sigh) did the right thing by sticking up for Groody.

You don’t have to like this decision, but if you support the rights of atheists to wear shirts that say things like “Good without god” or “Atheist and proud of it,” then you have to get behind the freedom to wear these shirts, too.

Christian Right groups won’t always admit it, but the ACLU upholds civil liberties in all instances, even if doing so goes against the personal beliefs of most of their members. It’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be an ACLU member.

Though I do have a question for any lawyers out there: Could an atheist student wear a shirt with the Bad Religion logo on it to school?

I don’t see how that’s any different, in theory, from the kind of shirt Groody wore. But in my mind, I feel like administrators would ban a shirt like this in a heartbeat. Would the student survive a court challenge? Who wants to be the test case…?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Gregg

    What a terrible decision by the ACLU. People who hold incorrect beliefs need to be silenced in any way possible. Calls for equality are nonsense; we need to give our views special privilege while beating down other views if we truly want to be successful. That shirt should be banned and the kid disciplined. 

  • Corvis29

    They do not need to be silenced they need to be truly educated on how the world works. Just because something is legal does not make it right.. They need to understand this as well.

  • Mike

    I read your post as ironic – I do hope this is the case…

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Needs more subtlety.

  • Dean Shelton

    freedom of speech , there are haters there are lovers .  there is to  much controversial  stuff these days.its ok to say your gay and pride yourself on it  but to say your anti gay you get  crusified  . i think  gays have there rights there been fighting for and they just keep going at for more .

  • Kris Preusker

    He has the right to wear it, and everybody else has the right to consider him an ignorant little bigot.

  • Andrew Hall

    I think atheists should simply wear shirts that have biblical verses on them — that should be enough to get them banned from any decent school.

  • Marguerite

    The shirt is wrong, but the ACLU is right.

  • jdm8

    Now that gives me an idea, a rainbow on a cross.

    I don’t think gays have all the rights that they should be given, I don’t see where that is possible.  We need to get rid of the double standard of special rights for heterosexuals.

  • littlejohn

    Gregg is obviously being sarcastic, Corvis. Keep your shirt on.

  • Prosepetals

    With a heavy sigh…

    “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” ~Thomas Paine

  • Tyler

    You could just say that the Bad Religion logo is against lower-case ‘t’s’.

  • Freedog2013

    Anything short of equality is unacceptable.  

  • TOKYO boy

    One of the students at my high school quite frequently wore a Bad Religion t-shirt with that logo on it.  Now that I think about it I’m quite surprised it got by.

    At that time (about 6 years ago when I was a sophomore) I was a Christian and I was rather indignant about the t-shirt because I didn’t know it was the logo of the band.  I thought he just hated Christians :p Never commented on it though.

  • Borax

    My 12 year old nephew wears his Bad Religion t-shirts to school and has been told by many of his teachers that the shirts are offensive. But to their credit, none of these teachers have tried to make him change the shirt or have tried to send him to the principal.

  • Anon

    How about Deuteronomy 17:12 – Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death

    or Leviticus 20:10 – All who curse their father or mother must be put to death.

    or Exodus 31:12 – Because the LORD considers it a holy day, anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death.

    or Isaiah 14:21 – Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers

    or Isaiah 13:15-18 – Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword.  Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes.  Their homes will be sacked and their wives raped by the attacking hordes… The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows.  They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children.

    or Jeremiah 48:10 -  Cursed be he who does the Lords work remissly, cursed he who holds back his sword from blood.

    or Ephesians 6:5 – Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear.

  • AxeGrrl

    If the Bad Religion t/symbol is allowed, this is fine too.

  • Ray

    “The administrators at his school told him to change his shirt. He
    protested, saying he had a right to wear it. He wasn’t discriminating
    against individuals, which could be illegal at a high school. This was protesting an idea; it was free speech; it was freedom of expression.”

    I can’t agree with this. Being gay is not an idea. If it is then you could wear a t-shirt that was anti-black. Like the color of your skin you have no choice in sexual orientation.

  • Sware

    He may have a right to wear that but I would probably not be able to hold back the smart-ass within since the shirt doesn’t in fact contain any words. 
    “So what exactly is your problem with refracted light?”

  • Corvis29

    I see what you did there

  • Dale

    Maybe the kid just hates images of rainbows. I do, and I’m gay. Christians have long seen the rainbow as a symbol of God’s love and a promise from God never to flood the whole earth again. (Some promise, given the nasty stuff that’s supposed to happen according to Revelations!) Growing up in a very anti-gay church, I have no love the symbols that are important to them.

    I wish something other than the rainbow had caught on, say tiramisu. That stuff is crazy delicious and irresistable… just like me. Time to go find a cool pro-tiramisu shirt!

  • Bryan

    I listened to Bad Religion even when I was a Christian (“I can like the music without buying into the lyrics”), but I was always appalled when I saw their logo. Now I kind of wish I had a shirt of theirs. 

  • Andrew Irvine

    Surely that would only make sense if being gay was a decision? The religion/anti-religion argument is about weighing the evidence and coming to a decision. Wouldn’t that t-shirt be more akin to “No blacks”? Like the line between pointing out Judaic, religious foolishness (buying a kosher oven that switches itself on) and being anti-semetic (calling someone ‘big nose’).

    I realise that a lot of people would, dishonestly, say that homosexuals can choose not to act on their feelings and that would be ok. But isn’t that like saying “We know you were born black, but if you paint yourself white then you can go to heaven.”

  • Malboeuf Eric

    I attended a Christian high-school in the 90s and I wore Bad Religion T-shirts with their famous cross buster from grade 9 until graduation. No one ever said anything about them.

  • Kevin Kirkpatrick

    The ACLU got this one completely wrong.

     “This was protesting an idea”.  On a day celebrating the idea of “racial equality”, would it be okay for a student to protest this idea with a T-shirt espousing white supremacy?The T-shirt is attacking/disparaging/dismissing homosexuality, which is not an “idea”, it is not a “belief”, it is a part of whom many people, including this bigot’s classmates, actually are.  “Bad Religion” is different; it is attacking a belief.  And I’m not being biased or hypocritical here: I’d no more object to the “Bad Religion” logo than a T-shirt with a circle/line through the word “Atheism”.

  • TerranRich

    “Are double rainbows doubly bad?” I’d ask with a frown.

  • TerranRich

    O RLY? Gays can get married in all 50 states now? Gays are seen as equals in all aspects of the law? When did this happen?

    The reason why you’re “crucified” if you say you’re anti-gay, is the same reason you’d be crucified for saying you’re anti-black-people, or anti-anything-that-isn’t-a-choice.

  • L.Long

    Strange but my 1st thought on seeing the T-shirt was ‘No Rainbows allowed’
    and thought ‘why don’t he like rainbows?’
    But the ACLU is right and the T-shirt is OK.
    Why OK? Cuz I like knowing who the arsehole bigots are right up front.
    Better to protect myself, especially now that I carry a purse!

  • Sanguine Apparatus

    My little brother actually was told not to wear his bad religion shirt to school anymore because the cross busters logo was offensive.

  • Thomas Lawson

    Perhaps someone should co-opt the shirt and add a caption:

    “There was no promise between Noah and God. Let’s get serious about climate change.”

  • Daniel Krull

     You can think that, but you’d be wrong.

  • C Peterson

    He has the right to wear it because the school foolishly allows students to wear t-shirts with messages on them.

  • Jonathan Duran

    Depends on where you live…I wore my Bad Religion t-shirt and other punk/metal shirts with anti-Christians themes all throughout high school and no one said a thing in California…I imagine my experience in the Bible-belt might have been a bit different…

  • CelticWhisper

    I forget the precise wording, but the best argument in favor of ACLU’s actions here goes something like “The cure for offensive free speech is more free speech.”

    If we start banning things that are offensive, there’s no logical end to the suppression of free expression because everything is going to be offensive to someone somewhere.

    On the other hand, a libertarian (in the literal meaning of the word, not political free-market extremism) approach to freedom of expression makes the problem self-correcting.  Anyone is free to offend, and anyone else is free to condemn the offense and stand up for ethical treatment.

    I, for one, would like to maintain a measure of confidence in my fellow human beings and believe that people can, will, and do stand up against prejudiced and hurtful expressions like anti-LGBT T-shirt logos and slogans without said logos and slogans needing to be banned from on high.  Good people will put right what others have made wrong and will do so of their own accord out of a sense of human compassion and justice.

  • Gus Snarp

    I’m unconvinced by the argument that this shirt doesn’t constitute hate speech, which schools generally have the right to curtail. In fact, I think this shirt is more hateful than the Bad Religion logo. I’m always troubled by these cases, I believe in free speech, but there’s also precedent for students not having full free speech rights in schools, particularly when it comes to hate speech.

    As an aside, there were a couple of full on skin heads in my high school, they didn’t wear logo t-shirts, they wore the complete eighties/nineties skinhead uniform (because it was the eighties/nineties): white t-shirt, jeans, black combat boots, chains and rings. The rings were the big thing, they were skulls, barbed wire, and most significantly, swastikas and Iron Crosses. Those two are pretty clearly hate speech. They were never, to my knowledge, asked to stop wearing them or punished, since they always had them on.

  • Chris Leithiser

    This, x1000.

  • Atoswald

    You don’t have to like this decision, but if you support the rights of atheists to wear shirts that say things like “Good with god” or “Atheist and proud of it,” then you have to get behind the freedom to wear these shirts, too. 

    I believe you meant to say “Good withOUT God.”

    And for the record, I HATE the kid’s shirt and his (bigoted IMO) opinion, but I agree he has a right to wear it.

  • Joseph Smith

    “You don’t have to like this decision, but if you support the rights of atheists to wear shirts that say things like “Good with god” or “Atheist and proud of it,” then you have to get behind the freedom to wear these shirts, too.”  –  I really hope you meant “…shirts that say things like “Good WITHOUT god”…”

  • Tainda

    Maybe the kid doesn’t like leprechauns?

    Unfortunately he has the right to voice his crappy opinion the same was we all do.  I wish I were still in high school, I would wear a different anti-religion t-shirt every day lol I was way too timid in high school.

  • Jose Reyes

    Isaiah 13:15-18 seems like the lyrics to a metal song.

  • Fsq

    No, in fact, the ACLU did not get “this one wrong”.

    Do you know the ACLU’s client? It is called the Bill of Rights. And yes, this shirt is incredibly asinine and offensive, but it is absolutely prtected speech. And if we restrict this one, there is nothing to prevent the cross with the slash from being prevented as well.

    We must endure that which we find the most uncomfortable and repugnant in order that we all have a voice that is not censored when the time comes.

  • Ejcpromo

    When I was in high school, I got to fly down to Seattle to see a Frank Zappa concert. Being the rebellious little lad I was, I bought a concert T-Shirt that said “Titties and Beer” and wore it proudly. Offensive and rude, yes, but I had the right to wear it.

    I wore it to school where I had a fundamentalist baptist BIOLOGY teacher that had a sticker on his desk that read “Jesus Loves You.” He told me to remove the shirt, to which I said, you remove the sticker and I will remove the shirt.

    At the end of the day, we both had to remove our items. Looking back now, I would much have preferred us to both keep our items on display. Free speech is one of the last remaining things that make the USA great. DO not try and squelch it, even when confronted with asinine shirts like this one in the OP.

  • Bill Santagata

    Under the Tinker standard, public schools cannot censor student speech merely because they disagree with it. However, they can if they show the speech can cause a “material disruption” to the educational process. This is why I disagree with the ACLU here. While wearing this shirt may not cause pandemonium, exposure to anti-gay messages does have a real and material impact on the mental wellbeing of gay students (and gay adults). This is shown in numerous psychological studies that examine the effects of anti-gay ballot initiatives.

    This is why I see no problem with banning derogatory messages but upholding positive ones: e.g. banning an “All Irish are drunks” shirt but allowing a “Proud to be Irish” shirt. Similarly, heterosexual students should be able to express their pride in being straight, but without disparaging others who are not.On the other hand, I believe that political messages should not be censored by the school, so a student should be able to express support of any ballot initiative as well as gay marriage/civil unions which are political issues, so long as the message is framed as a political statement (so I would uphold a “Marriage is 1 Man + 1 Woman” shirt but not allow a “Gay married couples go to hell!” shirt).

  • Hemant Mehta

    Whoops! Fixed. Thanks!

  • T-Rex

    The grammar….it hurts!

  • viddy_well

    Being a Christian is a choice; being gay, not so much. I don’t necessarily disagree that the ACLU got it right, but comparing it to the cross shirt is foolish.

  • Fsq

    Actually, go up to the newest post in the blog, and you find a study suggesting a hard-wire of belief, so perhaps your argument will be proven false in the long run as well. Maybe systems of believing in the human brain are not choices after all.

  • Andrew Hall

    All are good, and the smaller verses allow you to add graphics, too.

  • Jay Arrrr

    I agree with the ACLU on this one. If you drive this sort of thing underground and out of the light of day, you wind up like we did in November 2008. “Hooray for our side! We’ve arrived! We’ve elected a Black man President!” Then BAM! “Where the fuck did ALL these Racists come from? I’m shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you!” …

    They were always here, they just kept their ideas amongst themselves. Doesn’t do any good to stop-up all the holes in the kitchen if the walls are still full of cockroaches.

    Kid has the right to wear that shirt and I have the right to tell him he’s a dickhead.

  • Leon

    Good on the ACLU!  It’s doing the exact right thing in this case (IMO), and like you I’m proud to be a member, because it stands up for people’s rights, even when they’re expressing opinions the ACLU members disagree with.  It’s just a shame that people on Groody’s side of the spectrum attack the ACLU and claim it only supports libruls.

  • Bill Santagata

    Students do not have a right to wear sexually explicit or obscene statements (Bethel School District v. Fraser). Teachers cannot post religious messages in their classrooms (Stone v. Graham). You were both wrong.

  • Fsq

    No, we were not “wrong”. What we were was going against restrictive policies against free speech. Wrong is the wrong word to use.

  • Fsq

    I love living in California!!! For all its issues, California is a great palce to live!!!

  • Conuly

    In my favorite case, the ACLU defended the rights of students to protest the ACLU!

    (Though I hope the students realized they were massive hypocrites.)

  • Jerry H.

    To the extent you believed your respective expressions were protected by the First Amendment (or, at least, the case law interpreting it), you were, indeed, wrong.

  • westley

    “On a day celebrating the idea of “racial equality”, would it be okay for a student to protest this idea with a T-shirt espousing white supremacy?”

    Of course.  Presumably, a student could wear a shirt espousing racial equality, so why shouldn’t the opposite opinion get first amendment protection too?

    The alternative is to allow the school to decide who has the “right” opinions and gets to promote them.

  • Jesse L Sinclair

     I don’t think whether or not homosexuality is a choice matters in this context.

    He could wear a shirt that has a picture of China with the circle-slash and it would still be hugely bigoted, but as responsible people we still have to defend his right to be a bigot.

    Bigoted speech is still speech, thats why the Phelps get away with their “God Hates Fags” signs. We can’t cherry-pick when and where to protect rights, even if it means defending people we hate.

  • runawayuniverse

     Another (former) California kid checking in ..

    I’ve worn that very same Bad Religion shirt when I was in school back in
    the late 80′s early 90′s, and not a single time that I can remember was
    I asked to change it, turn it inside out or that anyone was offended by

    I went to school in the San Francisco Bay Area, so that might be why.

  • Fsq

    As I sat here, reading the awesome story about the Dallas Atheists, I realized that the title of this blog entry is incredibly misleading and wrong.

    In fact, the ACLU is not defending the t-shirt. The ACLU is defending free speech and expression. It is a huge difference and should be reflected in the title.

    We would be all over the Xtians if the post read “ACLU defends anti-atheist t-shirt”. So, this is actually pretty sad. Come on Hemant, you really are losing it here. You need to think about your words.

  • Fsq

    You are dangerous and misguided. It is people like you, who try to pass themselves off as progressive, that scare me as much as the radical xtian right and GOP.

    You do not get to dictate speech based on what makes you feel all icky.

    You. Scare. Me.

  • Deven Kale

     People are also just as free to be anti-black. Just a shirt stating that you’re anti-gay or anti-black isn’t even on the level of hate speech, it’s simply saying you don’t like them. A shirt suggesting an act, something along the lines of “I beat Gays,” or “Kill all Blacks,” is a different story, and would likely be considered hate speech.

  • Bill Santagata

    Look, I fully support the right of anyone to wear any of those shirts out in public. Students do have broad free speech rights in public schools, but these rights are still in a more limited capacity then when one is out in the public at large. A public school is a different environment than a public sidewalk. Students should have the right to a safe, nurturing environment conducive to receiving a good education FIRST, unbridled right to free speech second.

    A black student would not be able to concentrate and get a good education if he were surrounded with shirts saying “Ni**ers go to hell” and neither could a gay student surrounded with messages of “F*gs go to hell.”

  • Deven Kale

    “Niggers go to hell” and “Fags go to hell” could be considered Hate speech. A shirt implying that a person doesn’t like Homosexuals (or blacks), that’s just an opinion. Even in a school, I don’t think a shirt like that one should be banned.

  • Bill Santagata

    There is a fine line between “dislike” and “hate.” Under this standard you would approve a shirt saying “I don’t really care for black people.” It’s the same exact sentiment, just more politely worded.

    I agree that this shirt isn’t *that* bad, but it’s message is still a negative one: that homosexuals are inferior beings and that it is preferable to perpetuate a biological caste system of superior heterosexuals.

  • Neil

    The symbol crossed out on the t-shirt isn’t a pride flag. I realise the student might have intended the image to be anti-gay but the gay pride symbol is a specific graphic comprising 6 colour bars of equal width of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and lilac. The t-shirt depicts a rainbow figure with colours representing the 7 part split of light refracted through atmospheric moisture.

    The rainbow figure is actually a Christian symbol (and these days also New Age). The t-shirt is ambiguous. It could be taken, without further explanation from its wearer, as anti-Christian, anti-woo or anti-gay (if you don’t consider the specifics of gay pride symbolism detailed above). 

  • amycas

     yeah, I’m in favor of school uniforms as well.

  • amycas

     He’s anti-refracted light theory. Didn’t you know that god created all rainbows after the flood? Refracted light is the devil trying to trick you.

  • amycas

     You should start associating tiramisu with gay people in a positive light. Go marching in a pride parade and hand out free samples of tiramisu. Although, I think it might melt if it’s too hot outside. :-)

  • amycas

     I don’t necessarily agree that what you believe is really a choice though.

  • amycas

    Do you have a source for that? Cuz it sounds awesome, but almost too good to be true.
    Nm, I found it.

  • Sware

    Right…and without rainbows pots of gold & Lucky Charms could never have been created.  ;0)

  • Drumbum_68

    He can’t wear the bad religion shirt. The constitution states that church and state must remain seperated. When a student is at a public school, which is a state-sponsered enterprise, a student is a representative of the school. The school cannot protest or support any religion, so therefore they can not allow a student to do so while that student is on the schools property because the student could be viewed as representing the school.

    Homosexuality on the other hand, is not protected by the constitution. At least not yet.

  • Deven Kale


    When a student is at a public school, which is a state-sponsered enterprise, a student is a representative of the school.

    Do you have proof for this statement? Maybe a judicial decision creating a precedent, or some other legal document stating that students (who do not get paid by the school) represent the schools they attend? This seems really fishy to me.