A third-grade student from Orono, Maine, has won a skirmish with her elementary school over clothing bearing the words "Jesus Christ," but school officials say the incident had nothing to do with religious discrimination and never needed to become such a major issue.
The school, under pressure from a public-interest law firm, has agreed to let Gelsey Bostick wear a "Jesus Christ" sweatshirt and a "Jesus Christ" T-shirt to class without turning the clothing inside out.
In December, Gelsey's teacher asked her to turn both the sweatshirt and T-shirt inside out. The teacher said the two words on the shirt were causing a commotion, because one of Gelsey's classmates is named "Jesus," and that prompted lots of chatter among the kids.
"Maybe this would not have been an incident if [Gelsey] didn't have Jesus in her class," Shelley Johnson, Gelsey's teacher, was quoted as saying. The teacher also said one student was offended by the words on Gelsey's shirt, which were interpreted as swearing.
Over the course of several weeks, Gelsey simply turned her "Jesus Christ" clothing inside out, until her mother learned what was going on, in passing, at a parent-teacher conference.
"I'm mostly upset that I wasn't contacted about Gelsey having to turn her sweatshirt inside out," said Cynthia Bostick, who works as a professor of psychiatric nursing at the University of Maine.
Bostick, who recently moved to Maine from New Mexico, contacted the Bangor Daily News to see if the teacher was suppressing Gelsey's religious expression, and the case mushroomed from there.
This week, the Michigan-based Thomas More Center for Law Justice announced it had "successfully intervened" on Gelsey's behalf. In a letter to school officials, the Thomas More Center "identified the clearly established constitutional right of this young student to wear a shirt expressing her religious faith."
Richard Thompson, the chief counsel for the Thomas More Center, said in a statement, "The school did the right thing by acknowledging our client's constitutional rights. Unfortunately, Christians across this country are being discriminated against, and the public school system has been a primary culprit. I am thankful that we were able to help this young girl who was witnessing for her faith."
But school officials insist the incident was not motivated by religious discrimination. "This is not an issue about Gelsey's faith," Principal Susan O'Roak told the Bangor Daily News. "It was about other students interpreting her shirt as being swear words. ... There were no religious overtones."
"If kids are focused on the shirt, they're not focused on the lesson," O'Roak added.
Bostick told the newspaper the situation has been "very confusing to my daughter," but school officials say they're confused and troubled, too.
"What I'm upset about is that this is being dealt with in the newspaper," Superintendent Thomas Perry said in a newspaper interview. "We're all accessible and approachable. And I would hope parents come to us first." He said no one at the school even knew this was an issue until Bostick went to the newspaper and the Thomas More Center got involved.
For the record, Bostick told the newspaper she bought the "Jesus Christ" sweatshirt in San Diego three years ago because it was on sale for $5. She said she also bought a stack of other sweatshirts that day. Some of them were blank and others read "San Diego."
Susan Jones, Morning Editor
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