'You will not silence my message'

Officials at Chelsea Barney's school tried to force her to stop wearing her pro-life sweatshirt. They failed.
by Candi Cushman

 


Chelsea Barney's pro-life principles lead her to seek legal aid to ensure she could express her beliefs at school.
Chelsea Barney says she'll never forget the first time she felt "punished for being a Christian." It happened the day she wore her pro-life sweatshirt to Franklin Academy High School in Malone, a quaint New York village near the Canadian border.

Sixteen-year-old Chelsea, a 5-foot, softball-playing blonde, bought the shirt at a Christian youth festival where she heard a woman conceived by rape explain why she still opposed abortion. "She was saying how most people who get an abortion often feel they are just trying to fix a mistake," recalls Chelsea. "Then she stood up there and asked everybody, 'Am I am mistake?' That really hit me."

Moved, Chelsea bought a sweatshirt with the words, "Abortion is Homicide" on the front. The back said, "You will not silence my message. You will not mock my God. You will stop killing my generation. Rock for Life." Similar shirts, sold by the American Life League, were purchased by roughly 15,000 teenagers at festivals last summer.

Chelsea wore hers for the first day of school, Sept. 6. "Most students liked it," she says. "I had a girl come up to me and ask me where I got it, because she wanted one. No one had a problem with it."

No one, that is, except school officials. When Chelsea went to the principal's office for help with a jammed locker, she instead was reprimanded by Vice Principal John Scheidegger.

"He told me I had to change my sweatshirt because it was 'offensive,'" Chelsea says. "I just told him I wasn't going to change the shirt and that I found a lot of other kids' clothes offensive as well - like Marilyn Manson and Eminem T-shirts that promote drugs, violence against women and stuff like that."

So the vice principal sent her to "in-school suspension" - an isolation cell for troublemakers. Once inside, Chelsea's courage began to crumble. "They sent me to the ISS room, and that's really bad," she says. "You just don't get sent there. So I was kind of crying."

Meanwhile, Scheidegger asked Chelsea's father, Ronald Barney, to force his daughter to change her shirt. Even though he doesn't agree with his daughter's pro-life views, Barney said he supported her refusal to abandon convictions: "He [Scheidegger] told me, "We're going to expel her if she doesn't change,' and I said, 'I will not force her to do so.'"

Thus began a month-long standoff between the Barney family and Franklin school officials. At home, Chelsea called the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, a religious-freedom law firm that gave out its phone number with each Rock for Life shirt sold. Since the beginning of the school year, it has received phone calls from at least 10 students prohibited from wearing the shirts at school. Rock for Life says it received 12 calls from students whose shirts were censored.

Unlike Chelsea, though, most callers chose not to fight back.

"But here you have a girl that has the courage to stand up for what she believes in when most kids are fairly apathetic or they just kind of fall in with everybody else," says Edward White, a More Law Center attorney. "So why are school officials trying to punish her for having solid beliefs? It's not as if she was walking around with a shirt that said, 'Everyone do heroin.'"

Franklin school officials declined to comment. But a Sept. 28 letter from school attorney John Piasecki clarified their reasoning: The school had a right to ban the sweatshirt, the letter said, because the word "God" made it "apparent that the student's objective is to proselytize the reader."

That's dead wrong, argues White. "The law is that, as long as it's student speech - whether out the mouth or on a T-shirt - and is not causing great disruption in the school, then the school cannot stop it just because it doesn't like the message." As evidence, he points to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision upholding the right of high school students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. Students didn't "shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate," the justices ruled.

More recently, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter in 1999 to every public school district reinforcing students' free-speech rights. "Schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion for prohibition or regulation," the letter said. Bottom line: Religious and politically controversial student expression is allowed as long as it's not sponsored by the school.

Backed by that legal precedent, Chelsea's persistence paid off. One month after her battle began, on Oct. 29, she received a letter from Franklin school officials rescinding their pro-life apparel ban and apologizing for "any hardship this may have caused." Chelsea celebrated by wearing her Rock for Life shirt to school the next day. To her dismay, a teacher promptly escorted her back to the principal's office. But this time the reaction was different:

"The minute I stepped into Mr. Scheidegger's office, he looked at me and said, "Nope, nope?Go back to class.' And I was like, 'Yeah, that's the way it should be.'"

? 2002 Focus on the Family. Used by permission. Reprinted from the February 2002 issue of Focus on the Family Citizen magazine.

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