WOODBURY, Minn. — Elliot Chambers and his sister thought their new shirts were “cool.”
The shirts, which they had bought from an Internet vendor, read, “Straight Pride,” with restroom-style outlines of a man and a woman holding hands. Elliot's mother Lana said the shirts were meant to promote “not just the heterosexual lifestyle, but Christian abstinence before marriage.” They certainly weren't meant to spark a lawsuit.
The Chambers children wore their shirts to school twice without incident. But the third time Elliot, 16, wore his to Woodbury High School, a few students complained that the shirt was offensive. The next day, Elliot was called into the office of Dana Babbitt, the principal, and told not to wear the shirt anymore.
Lana Chambers said Babbitt told her that her son's shirt “might incite violence” by provoking a homosexual student to attack Elliot. “I said, ‘If you've got a homosexual that will violently attack our son, why don't you discipline those kids when it happens?’” Chambers said.
The Chambers’ daughter, who attends middle school, was not asked to stop wearing her shirt.
Elliot e-mailed the Web site where he bought the shirt and told the site what had happened. The site's owner suggested that the Chambers contact the American Family Association. They did — and ended up filing a lawsuit against the high school, charging that their son's First Amendment rights were being suppressed.
The U.S. Supreme Court has protected political speech at public high schools in the past, as in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case, in which the court ruled that students could protest the Vietnam War by wearing black arm-bands to their public high school.
Jim Gelbmann, a member of the school board, wrote an editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press defending principal Babbitt's decision. “Instead of being sued, Woodbury school officials should be commended,” Gelbmann said. “School officials have a moral and legal obligation to protect the health and safety of all students.”
Gelbmann said that Elliot's shirt could disrupt the educational process. He said that other clothing, such as shirts with beer or alcohol logos, pictures of weapons, or Confederate flags, are also prohibited, and added, “the same policy would be enforced against a student wearing a ‘Gay Pride’ sweatshirt.”
Lana Chambers says that's not true: “Woodbury High School is really promoting a radical homosexual agenda.” She pointed to the signs posted in 48 classrooms labeling the rooms “safe zones.” The signs feature a pink triangle and the statement that “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender” students should feel comfortable discussing their sexuality with staff members there.
Chambers said, “The public school that I'm paying tax dollars to support is undermining the moral training I'm doing at home.” She charged that the school's staff offered to refer troubled children to outside counselors or groups, including homosexual activist groups.
Gelbmann argued, “Issues relating to sexuality account for only a small fraction of the concerns discussed in the 'safe rooms.’” He said that they were necessary because not all students can “turn to their families” in “times of personal crisis.”
Chambers dismissed the claim that the “safe zones” and clothing regulations are necessary to prevent harassment.
"I don't advocate any kid being taunted or harassed for any reason,” she said. “But my son and daughter get ridiculed all the time because they're still virgins.” Elliot told the Straight Pride Web site that he had been hissed at and spit upon for wearing his shirt.
Lana Chambers said, “I don't see them setting up a safe zone for him.”
Like her son, Lana Chambers is ready for a fight: “Actually, the shirt should say 'Straight and narrow pride,’” she said.
"That would make a lot of people mad. So you're promoting narrow-mindedness? Well, when it comes to sexual morality, I sure do.”