A Tennessee high school student has been awarded a $1,000 scholarship by an atheist group for dressing like Jesus Christ on the school's "fictional character day."
Jeff Shott, a sophomore at Summit High School, was not disciplined for his action back in January, but Principal Charles Farmer did advise him that if the costume caused a distraction during the day he would have to remove it. Shott voluntarily removed his robes and sash, a costume that included a hammer and nail.
But Shott's pluck was not overlooked by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the organization, located in Madison, Wis., 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 toward that," Gaylor said. Shott is the first to receive the Paul Gaylor Memorial Student Activist scholarship, named for Annie Laurie Gaylor's father, who recently passed away, she said.
The foundation, established in 1978, promotes the separation of state and church, and maintains a legal staff.
In the foundation's account of what happened, Shott was approached by Farmer, assistant principal Sarah Lamb and a school resource officer about his costume, who said they wished 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 Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney.
Gaylor said the student had contacted the organization, and in turn, they sent a letter to Director of Schools Mike Looney calling the costuming incident a violation of the student's constitutional rights protected under the First Amendment. In addition, they questioned a classroom discussion where a physical science teacher at the school had said she believed men and women came from Adam and Eve.
Looney said the district delegates responsibility to the principal and in this case he supports Farmer's actions in having the discussion with Shott.
He referred to recently signed legislation in Tennessee known as the saggy pants bill, 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.
Ken Paulson, president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, echoed Looney's comments, explaining students have First Amendment rights like anyone else.
But the U.S. Supreme Court has carved out guidelines that give public school officials the right to limit free expression when it poses a threat of substantial disruption to education.
Paulson said it was appropriate for the administrators to approach the incident the way they did rather than turning it into a controversy.
"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 €1/8 under the circumstances, the school had a right to remove the costume," he said.
Shott is not the first student to receive an award from the organization. Last year, a student from Ohio who dressed as Jesus Christ for a similar costume day and was disciplined also received an award, Gaylor said.