Students Lose Yearbook-Photo Battle

Times Staff Writer

Students banned from their senior class yearbook photo for wearing religious T-shirts that conveyed a group message will not be allowed to retake the picture, Huntington Beach Union High School District trustees decided Tuesday.

The board also voted against revising the district dress code to allow students to communicate religious beliefs, through wearing clothing or jewelry in a group message, in a way that would not disrupt the classroom environment. Both votes were 4 to 1, with Trustee Matthew Harper the dissenting voice in each.

A district lawyer had advised that Fountain Valley High School administrators were within their rights to ask the 13 students, whose shirts spelled out “Jesus Is the Way” and “Jesus {heart} U,” to rearrange themselves during the Oct. 21 photo session. Eleven students, all members of a campus Christian club, walked out after trying to compromise with administrators.


Through an attorney from a nonprofit legal defense group specializing in religious freedom issues, the students and their parents had requested that the school reassemble its 650 seniors and retake the picture with their message intact.

“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.”

Schools have a federally outlined responsibility to separate church and state, district officials said, and an organized effort to send a group message in a student publication constitutes school speech and thus can be regulated.

The message would have dominated the photo of the seniors, administrators said, which would tell the public that the school endorses that message as opposed to its being an individual student’s belief.

“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.”

Some students agreed. “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.”

Board member Harper placed the dress code and photo items on Tuesday’s agenda. Students are entitled to express whatever religious beliefs they like, he said, as long as the messages don’t disrupt learning.

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

He had proposed adding a paragraph to the district’s dress code allowing students to wear clothing or jewelry that expressed their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“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.”

The 13 seniors involved have each contributed to buy a $250 yearbook page to promote their beliefs.