Student dressed as Jesus wins atheist award

5:58 AM, Apr 27, 2012   |    comments
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Spring Hill, Tenn. (Tennessean.com) - High school sophomore Jeff Shott has been awarded a $1,000 scholarship for dressing like Jesus Christ on fictional character day.

The Tennessee student was not disciplined for his action back in January, but Summit High Principal Charles Farmer did advise him that if the costume caused distraction during the day that he would have to remove it, school officials say.

Shott voluntarily removed his robes and sash, a costume that included a hammer and nail.

"Both principals said they were worried my costume would spark religious debates in every class and take up large amounts of time. I was sternly warned that if even one teacher reported the slightest disruption, I would have to take off my costume. Then and there, I decided to take it off," Shott wrote in a letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization devoted to promoting the separation of state and church. The group ended up awarding him a scholarship.

Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said Shott exhibited spunk and a light touch with his actions.

"We wanted to encourage him, and we know the cost of higher education. This is just a small stipend towards that," Gaylor said. Shott is the first to receive the $1,000 Paul Gaylor Memorial Student Activist scholarship named for Annie Laurie Gaylor's father, who recently passed away, she said.

Group calls incident violation of rights

Gaylor said that after Schott contacted the organization, it sent a letter to Director of Schools Mike Looney calling the costume incident a violation of the student's constitutional rights protected under the First Amendment.

In addition, organization officials questioned a classroom discussion reported to them by Shott in which a physical science teacher at the school said she believed men and women came from Adam and Eve rather than evolution.

In the foundation's account of what happened on fictional character day, Shott was approached by Farmer, Assistant Principal Sarah Lamb and a school resource officer. They questioned him about his costume and said they had wished that he were dressed like Zeus, a Greek mythological deity.

"We understand the student felt he should remove the costume to avoid problems with school administrators," said Rebecca Markert, a staff attorney with the Foundation.

Schools Director Looney said the district delegates responsibility to the principal, and in this case he supports Farmer's actions in discussing the costume with Shott. He referred to the recently signed "saggy pants" law, which prohibits students from exposing "underwear or body parts in an indecent manner that disrupts the learning environment."

"We're not trying to tell him what to believe or not believe. What we are saying is he's not allowed to create a distraction," Looney said.

Right can be limited

Ken Paulson, president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, echoed Looney's comments, explaining that students have First Amendment right like anyone else.

But the U.S. Supreme Court has carved out guidelines giving public school officials the right to limit free expression when it poses a threat of substantial disruption to education.

"You apply that ruling to this case, there is no question that a student wearing a Jesus costume and describing him as fictional character has a significant potential for disrupting school activities. Under the circumstances, the school had a right to remove the costume," Paulson said.

What's more important, he said, is that administrators actually had a conversation with the student and shared their concerns. In time the student decided to take off his costume anyway, he said. "In similar situations, students get kicked out of school. This is a much better approach in a controversial situation."

Shott is not the first to receive an award from the foundation. Last year, the organization - which claims about 18,000 members nationally, 200 from Tennessee - handed out six student activism awards. One of them went to a student who protested the Ten Commandments in her public high school, and another to a boy in Ohio who also dressed like Jesus Christ, and was disciplined, Gaylor said.

She added that the group is seeing an upswing in activism coming out of Tennessee, and it is seeing many violations. Letters have been sent to school superintendents throughout the state informing them of the laws about student-led prayer, football prayer and graduation prayer, she said.

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Maria Giordano, The Tennessean

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