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By KEN PAULSON
First Amendment Center
A couple of unexpected things happened at Summit High School in Spring Hill, earlier this year.
The first was that sophomore Jeff Shott showed up at the public high school to participate in “fictional character day” dressed as Jesus.
The second was that he was not expelled.
At a time when school administrators are too often quick on the trigger in disciplining students for potentially disruptive speech or dress, the administrators at Summit took a bold approach with Shott. They talked with him.
After ascertaining that he was dressed as Jesus and not Zeus, they told Shott that his costume might offend others and that he would be asked to change clothes if any conflicts arose.
Shott thought about it and decided to change out of the costume.
Did the administration nudge the student in that direction? Sure.
But the Supreme Court in its 1969 Tinker ruling gave public schools the power to do much more than that in limiting “substantially disruptive” speech — and there’s little that could be more potentially disruptive than a costume that essentially says, “Your religion is a hoax.”
So the school pulled its punches, and the young man made his point. No drama. No damage.
The January incident is in the news now because the Freedom From Religion Foundation just gave Shott a $1,000 scholarship.
It seems the foundation saw the costume as a gutsy act, consistent with its stated mission of promoting separation of church and state, and educating the public on “nontheism.”
Of course, that award led to the news coverage and inflammatory website exchanges that the earlier quiet resolution did not.
All Americans have a right to embrace their faith or none at all. But it’s a mistake to applaud actions that taunt the faith of others. In a free society, we will always have our differences, but mutual respect goes a long way.
Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer/First Amendment Center. Previously, Paulson served as editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today and USATODAY.com.