Religion Is at Center of Yearbook Battle

Times Staff Writer

Alex Lopez is as devoted to his Fountain Valley high school as he is to Christianity, and the chance to meld the two for posterity seemed a perfect way to cap off his senior year.

So he and a dozen friends lined up in the front row during a senior class yearbook photo session with their T-shirts spelling out "Jesus is the way" and "Jesus {heart} U," with a cross on each side.

Fountain Valley High School Vice Principal Ted Reid asked the students to rearrange themselves, turn around or stand in the back. After trying to compromise with the administrator, 11 students walked out.

The students and their parents have requested that the school reassemble its 650 seniors and retake the picture with their message intact.

The conflict pits students' rights to express themselves against a school's federally outlined responsibility to separate church and state.

"We wanted to express how important Christianity is in our lives," said Alex, 17. "We weren't trying to impose our beliefs on others."

The nonprofit Pacific Justice Institute, a legal defense group specializing in religious freedom issues, sent the demand in a letter that the Huntington Beach Union High School District received six days after the Oct. 21 incident.

The district's legal counsel is expected to respond by Friday to allegations that the students' constitutional rights had been violated, school officials said.

"We're waiting for the interpretation of the district lawyer before we make any decision," said Fountain Valley High School Principal Connie Mayhew. She declined to speak further about the incident.

At issue is whether an organized effort to send a group message in a student publication constitutes school speech, and thus can be regulated, or student speech.

"If they had 'Jesus loves you' on their own shirt, that would have been just fine," said Assistant Supt. Carol Osbrink. "An individual student has the right to express their own personal opinion and their own beliefs."

But, she said, group speech in such a public forum as a senior yearbook photo crosses the line. "That says to the public that the school endorses that message, as opposed to being the beliefs of an individual student," Osbrink said.

Not allowing students to wear what they please and arrange themselves as they like 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."

The district's dress code prohibits clothing that condones hate, violence and illegal substances. Fountain Valley High School did not provide more specific rules for students posing in the senior class photo, which is usually displayed across two pages in the yearbook.

Accusing the district of anti-religious sentiments is wrong, Osbrink said. "The message could have been anything, and the district still would not have wanted to be a party to endorsing it."

All of the students who wore the shirts -- alternating green and yellow for "Jesus is the way" and red for "Jesus {heart} U" -- are members of the campus club Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Prayer groups, along with religion courses, are considered religious expression and are allowed under federal laws and guidelines.

The group's president, Jon Gordon, and about 20 other seniors in the club did not participate in the T-shirt activity. Gordon declined to comment Wednesday about the participating students' actions.

The Fountain Valley incident joins other recent arguments over student expression in school yearbooks:

* Last year, a Salem, Ore., high school principal banned a senior girl's photo that included her pet rat. In Illinois, a federal judge rejected an elementary school student's plea to allow her yearbook cover design, incorporating the words "God Bless America," to be published unaltered.

* In 2002, students at Boulder High School in Colorado staged a "kiss-in" to protest officials' decision to remove a photo of two girls kissing from the yearbook. Administrators said the photo was not banned because of its content, but because the girls' parents did not give permission before deadline.

Alex, the Fountain Valley senior who donned one of the cross T-shirts for the photo, said administrators need to clarify dress policies for student publications.

"If we knew the rules beforehand, we could have done something differently and still gotten our point across," he said.

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