A high school student in Tennessee was awarded with a $1,000 scholarship by an atheist organization for dressing up as Jesus Christ during "Fictional Character Day" at his school.
Jeff Shott, a 17-year-old sophomore at Summit High School in Spring Hill, Tenn., is the first ever recipient of the Paul Gaylor Memorial Student Activist scholarship because of his controversial costume, which caught the attention of school administrators back in January.
"This is a lighter kind of activism, but I think it takes courage, especially in Tennessee, and it was something that I knew would have struck my father," Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), told The Christian Post on Friday.
The scholarship is named after Gaylor's father, who passed away last year. He grew up in the South and was taken to church often before he eventually came to resent religion. Her father would have "applauded" Shott's costume, she said.
According to a first-person account published on FFRF's website, Shott said school administrators – Principal Charles Farmer, an assistant principal and the school resource officer – pulled him out of class to ask him questions about the costume on the day he wore it.
After Shott explained that he was trying to look like Jesus, Farmer expressed his concern about the controversial nature of the outfit and said it may cause a disruption in the classroom. Farmer allegedly told the student that if just one teacher complained about a disruption as a result of the costume, then he would have to take it off. Following the warning, however, Shott took it off on his own.
The "Tinker Standard," which came about in 1969 as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, says that students maintain their freedom of speech and expression while in school unless school officials reasonably forecast a substantial disruption as a result of the student's actions.
When asked about the standard, Gaylor said there was no disruption, so there shouldn't have been any reason for school officials to pull Shott out of class.
"That's the whole point ... the disruption was by the administrators," she said.
Steve Crampton, vice president for legal affairs and general counsel for Liberty Counsel, disagrees and says schools are given "a great deal of latitude" in situations like the one involving Shott.
"I think the school's actions are defensible here," Crampton told CP. "I think it was somewhat of an overreaction, but I think there's a great deal of deference given to the schools under these circumstances to maintain order."
Crampton says that public school systems in America serve as an important battleground on which to defend the freedoms of religion, speech and expression because so many young people are influenced by them. He also believes schools are more focused on the "indoctrination" of students into believing in certain ideologies than they are on education.
While Summit High School may be legally defensible, Crampton says he wishes the school would have just allowed Shott to wear the costume.
"I think it's really unfortunate that we have kind of grown into a society where our schools are not areas where students can really engage in free speech and discuss the hot-button issues of the day," he commented.
Gaylor says Shott has revealed to the FFRF a number of ways in which his school has behaved unconstitutionally. Shott claims, among other things, that a science teacher told him, "We actually come from Adam and Eve," in response to a question about evolution. The organization is still waiting on a reply from the school about these other issues.
Mike Looney, superintendent of Williamson County Schools, says the school district fully adheres to state and federal laws and doesn't feel the need to respond any further to the FFRF. He supports Farmer and the other school officials, and says they handled the situation with Shott appropriately.