It’s a beautiful two-word message that the world needs right now — and it got an Alabama teacher kicked out of her classroom.
Burrell said she wore the shirt to support 11-year-old Aubreigh Nicholas, a young dancer from the local town of Semmes who has been fighting an inoperable brain tumor. The shirt has been sold as part of a fundraiser to pay for her treatment.
“So at the point of looking and seeing ‘pray’ on it, the principal said, can you put on a sweater or something, knowing that there are other people who object to that. We have to be cognizant of everyone’s beliefs or everyone’s thoughts in a public school,” said Martha Peek, the superintendent for Mobile County Public Schools.
Apparently they have to be aware of everyone’s thoughts except Burrell’s, of course.
“I didn’t think twice about it. I wasn’t trying to promote religion, it was just my Monday feel-good shirt,” Burrell said in a now-deleted Facebook post, according to Fox News.
Peek insists the principal wasn’t aware that the shirt was in connection to Aubreigh, whose plight has attracted a cadre of supporters called “Aubreigh’s Army.”
“We’re totally supporting her, I think that this was just an unfortunate connection there, but still the principal would have had to exercise her judgment,” said Peek, noting that school policy is to ban any clothing that expresses a belief.
Let’s not forget that the policy, as per Tinker v. Des Moines, is blatantly unconstitutional. That decision — authored by Abe Fortas, an appointee of the Lyndon Johnson administration — set in stone that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Beyond that, it’s highly unlikely that any school would have exercised this unconstitutional policy for a student wearing a “Love Trumps Hate” or “#MeToo” T-shirt. One gets the distinct feeling, from recent history, that only certain messages that express a belief would run afoul of the fine people with the Mobile County Public Schools.
Given the Constitution, one could only reasonably restrict Burrell’s clothing choice on two grounds: it either was disruptive to the classroom or lent itself to the official establishment of a religion on the part of the school.
I think we can safely dismiss the first scenario without a second thought. As for whether it established a religion, it’s worth noting that Burrell was simply acting as an individual who happened to be a teacher. This wasn’t a decision for her to wear the T-shirt on the part of the district (far from it, actually) and it didn’t specify any religion, simply that she believed in the power of prayer.
While the Supreme Court has upheld laws that religious garb cannot be worn in the classroom if there is a state law prohibiting it in two separate cases involving a Sikh man in Oregon and a Muslim woman in Pennsylvania — both of whom were denied the right to wear religiously-identifiable clothing in the classroom — there isn’t a state law here, simply a school policy (which is unconstitutional, anyhow).
According to the Newseum, First Amendment Center cautions that “teachers should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message.”
However, to proselytize, one first needs to specify a religious belief that one is proselytizing for. Burrell’s shirt didn’t specify anything — and as for intent, it can be traced back to a fundraiser for a sick girl. Could one be said to be proselytizing for wellness, or simply for a miracle?
This shirt should not have alarmed anybody, unless they believe the simple act of prayer — an act that’s central to the life of most every religious believer across this planet — has now become an in-your-face obloquy to unbelievers.
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