Student’s ‘Homosexuality is a sin’ shirt didn’t violate dress code, Tennessee suit says

Hayley Fowler
·3 min read

A 15-year-old at a high school in Tennessee said she was taken out of class and told to change for wearing a shirt that said “homosexuality is a sin.”

Now her dad is suing the school district.

Richard Penkoski accused Overton County Schools of violating his daughter’s right to free speech and freedom of religion under the U.S. Constitution, according to a lawsuit filed last week in the Middle District of Tennessee court. Penkoski is a self-described street preacher who runs a ministry called Warriors for Christ and often preaches against the LGBT community.

“My 15 year old was thrown out of school for the day for wearing this shirt,” he said in a tweet on Aug. 26. “#lgbt wants to trample on your #freespeech rights while they cry for special rights.”

Overton County is located halfway between Knoxville and Nashville in central Tennessee.

Attorneys for the minister and a representative for the school district did not immediately respond to a request for comment by McClatchy News on Thursday.

According to the complaint filed Oct. 16, Penkoski’s daughter arrived at Livingston Academy on Aug. 25 wearing a shirt that said “Homosexuality is a sin - 1 Corinthians 6:9-10,” referring to first Corinthians chapter six in the Bible.

The verse reads “or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

The classroom where she was wearing the shirt had “a pro-homosexual symbol” on display, the lawsuit states.

Penkoski’s daughter, who is referred to as “B.A.P.” in the complaint, was immediately sent to the principal’s office and told her shirt violated the school’s dress code policy for being “sexually connotative,” according to court filings.

She reportedly texted her parents after telling administrators she was unable to cover up the shirt with a sweater or sweatshirt.

Her dad then called the school and spoke with the principal, who told him the word “homosexuality” conferred a sexual reference because it contained the word “sex,” according to the complaint. Penkoski subsequently picked up his daughter from school and brought her home.

“There are some educated people who support the lgbt!! While some don’t agree with the shirt my daughter wore they understand she has a constitutional right to wear it,” he said in a tweet on Sept. 19. “Her rights don’t end where your feelings begin.”

Penkoski’s attorneys said Overton has applied the school dress code selectively, pointing to instances in which students reportedly displayed a rainbow flag on a pair of shoes, wore a shirt that said “Virginity Rocks” or had a message in an online class that stated “And if you ain’t a hoe, get up out my trap house.”

The complaint makes claims for First and Fourteenth Amendment violations of free speech and free exercise of religion, as well as violations of Tennessee’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“By forcing Plaintiff B.A.P. to choose between abandoning her religious beliefs in order to receive an education and, alternatively, abiding by her religious beliefs only to be demerited and disciplined, the school district has imposed a substantial burden on plaintiff B.A.P.’s sincerely-held religious beliefs and the exercise of her religion,” the lawsuit states.

Penkoski is seeking an injunction and permanent judgment declaring the school district’s actions unconstitutional as well as compensatory damages and attorney’s fees.