Students fight School Board over [Wiccan] religious expression ban
The ACLU calls it a suppression of students' First Amendment rights.
By CODY LOWE <[email protected]>
The Roanoke Times
RICHLANDS - This little Southwest Virginia mountain town sure doesn't look like a hotbed of Wiccans.
But a Richlands High School student, who says he is not a Wiccan, has enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia in his fight to display a Wiccan symbol on his clothing at school.
He'll defend that right at Monday night's Tazewell County School Board meeting.
Christopher Aaron Henkel, a 17-year-old rising senior, contends that he and a group of friends were threatened with suspension if they wore T-shirts bearing a pentagram - an inverted five-pointed star - and the word "Equality" to school.
It was a reflection, the ACLU wrote in a letter to Richlands High Principal George Brown, of "a disturbing trend of suppression of students' First Amendment rights."
In early May, Henkel said he and Helenia Mitchell were called into the principal's office, where they faced Brown, an assistant principal and two uniformed police officers. Henkel said Brown accused him and Mitchell of putting up posters promoting Wicca without permission, as required by school policies.
Henkel and Mitchell said they denied putting up the posters or that they are Wiccans. But Henkel questioned why the Wicca posters should be removed when posters advertising a Christian missionary's sermon at a local church earlier in the year had been allowed to remain up for weeks.
Henkel contends that when he asked Brown if Christians had more rights to post such materials than non-Christians, the answer was yes, because Christian posters were unlikely to cause disruption in school. But, Brown reportedly told them the Christian posters were placed without his permission and also violated school policy.
Henkel bought five T-shirts on which he painted pentagrams and the world "Equality." The next day, he distributed them to a group of his friends, including Mitchell, Charise Watson, another rising senior, and Star Hess, who graduated this spring.
The shirts were reported to the principal, however, and Watson was called to the office. "I was told I was breaking the law and I could be suspended for 10 days," Watson said.
The year before, Watson said, she had been called to the office for wearing a necklace with a pentagram . That time, she said Brown told her that she couldn't be forced to remove the necklace but was asked to take it off "because a teacher was concerned about you."
But with the threat of expulsion over the T-shirts, Henkel decided to contact the ACLU. Legal director Rebecca Glenberg interviewed Henkel and Mitchell and their parents before sending a letter to Brown contending that the students had a First Amendment right to wear the T-shirts, that they didn't violate the school's dress code, and asking him for written assurances that the students would be "permitted to wear their T-shirts to school without fear of discipline."
Brown later wrote a letter to the ACLU accusing it of making numerous false assumptions in a "vicious condemnation of me and my practices." He chastised the organization for writing its initial letter without contacting him for his side of the story, and charged it with using "Gestapo tactics of aggression and chastisement."
So, Henkel will take his case to the Tazewell County School Board on Monday night. "This is not an issue of Wiccan rights, but of everyone's right to religious expression.