By Calvin Palmer
A number of children connected to a Gainesville church have been sent home from school for wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the message “Islam is of the Devil” on the back. The front carried a verse from the Gospel according to John.
They were sent home when they declined to change clothes or cover the anti-Muslim statement.
School district staff attorney Tom Wittmer says the shirts might have offended or distracted others and violated the district’s dress code.
“Students have a right of free speech, and we have allowed students to come to school wearing clothes with messages,” Wittmer said. “But this message is a divisive message that is likely to offend students. Principals, I feel reasonably, have deemed that a violation of the dress code.”
The shirts are connected to a church called the Dove World Outreach Center. Church Senior Pastor Terry Jones said spreading the church’s message is more important than education.
A 10-year-old elementary school student was sent home on Monday because of the shirt. Three high school students were sent home yesterday and a middle school student also had to change clothes.
Any legal challenges mounted by the church, citing the First Amendment, are likely to fail, according to legal experts.
Ron Collins, a scholar with the non-profit First Amendment Center in Washington D.C., said courts give public school officials a “significant amount of latitude” in regulating student dress that could disrupt the classroom or a school function.
“Here, it’s not only a religious expression,” Collins said. “It’s a religious expression that is hostile to other forms of religious expression.”
Catherine Cameron, a faculty member at the Stetson College of Law, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in several cases that public schools may quash speech deemed disruptive “even if it steps on the other child’s free speech rights”.
Dove Senior Pastor Terry Jones said no local company “had the guts” to print the shirts.
Dove member Wayne Sapp said he ordered the shirts over the Internet from a company that allows individuals to design their own shirts.
Faith Sapp, 10, was the elementary student sent home on Monday. Emily Sapp, 15, was sent home from Gainesville High yesterday.
Both daughters said it was their decision and not that of their parents to wear the t-shirts.
Emily Sapp said the “Islam is of the Devil” statement was aimed at the religion’s beliefs, not its members.
Sapp by name, sap by nature. And it obviously runs in the family.
Wayne Sapp said that his children decided it was time to “stand up for what they believe instead of saying the rules might not let me do it” and said that society has grown “so tolerant of being tolerant” that free speech is eroding.
Strange how the Looney Tunes on the far right always seem to invoke “free speech” to absolve their nefarious activities.
Saeed R. Khan, president of the Muslim Association of North Central Florida, said the anti-Islam message should not be accepted when “schools are supposed to be teaching tolerance for others”.
“It’s pretty offensive, isn’t it?” Khan said of the t-shirt message referring to his faith. “Particularly in a school setting where you are trying to create an atmosphere where people are supposed to respect each other and live with each other, where we have people of every ethnicity and every religion.”