Law & Courts

High Court Voids Ruling on Anti-Gay Shirt

By Mark Walsh — March 09, 2007 2 min read

A much-debated legal case over the right of a public school student to wear a T-shirt with a religious-based message against homosexuality appears to be fizzling amid knotty procedural issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week set aside a federal appeals court ruling in favor of the school district in the case. But that was because the student at its center had graduated from high school last year, and a federal district court recently declared his lawsuit moot.

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The case involves Tyler Chase Harper, who as a high school student in 2004 wore a shirt with hand-lettered messages that said, “Homosexuality is shameful. Romans 1:21,” and “Be ashamed. Our school has embraced what God has condemned.” He wore the shirt the day after some students at Poway High School in the 33,000-student Poway, Calif., school district had participated in an event to show support for gay rights.

On grounds of free speech and free exercise of religion, lawyers for Mr. Harper had sought an injunction in 2004 to block school administrators from restricting the anti-gay shirt. A federal judge denied the request, and in a ruling last year that drew wide attention, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, upheld the denial in a 2-1 ruling that emphasized that school administrators should not have to permit “verbal assaults that may destroy the self-esteem of our most vulnerable teenagers.” (“U.S. Court Backs School’s Decision to Bar Student’s Anti-Gay T-Shirt,” May 3, 2006.)

No Damages Allowed

Mr. Harper sought a rehearing before the 9th Circuit court, which was denied, and then review by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, he graduated from Poway High last year, and the school district went back to the district court to suggest that the case was moot.

On Jan. 24, U.S. District Judge John A. Houston, in San Diego, dismissed Mr. Harper as a defendant in the case because the young man had graduated. He noted that Mr. Harper’s claims for damages, which could have kept his case viable, had already been dismissed on the grounds that the school district was immune from such claims. The judge allowed Mr. Harper’s younger sister, Kelsie, to be substituted as the plaintiff, but he ruled on the merits against her claims.

The Supreme Court, ruling on the appeal of the earlier lower-court rulings, on March 5 took note of the district court’s ruling that Mr. Harper’s case was moot. It refused a request to substitute his sister in the case in the matter directly before it. And it tossed out the controversial 9th Circuit ruling in the district’s favor.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented in Harper v. Poway Unified School District (Case No. 06-595), but he didn’t give an explanation.

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as High Court Voids Ruling on Anti-Gay Shirt

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