More students wear ‘Islam of the Devil’ shirts to school

Posted by admin on Aug 25th, 2009

Tricia Coyne, The Gainesville Sun, August 25, 2009

As Wayne Sapp, left, answers questions during a video interview, his daughter, Emily, a 10th grader at Gainesville High School, displays the back of her t-shirt Tuesday afternoon. After being brought to the Dean’s office, Sapp, who attends Dove World Outreach Center on NW 37th Street, was removed from school for wearing controversial attire. More children from the Dove World Outreach Center arrived Tuesday at area public schools with shirts bearing the message “Islam is of the Devil” and were sent home for violation of the school district’s dress code when they declined to change clothes or cover the anti-Muslim statement on their clothing.

School district staff attorney Tom Wittmer said the shirts violated a district ban on clothing that may “disrupt the learning process” or cause other students to be “offended or distracted.”

“Students have a right of free speech, and we have allowed students to come to school wearing clothes with messages,” Wittmer said. “But this message is a divisive message that is likely to offend students. Principals, I feel reasonably, have deemed that a violation of the dress code.”

Wittmer said the school district allows students to express their religious beliefs but also must protect other students, such as members of the Muslim faith, from discrimination based on their religious beliefs.

He said there also has to be equal treatment of different faiths.

“The next kid might show up with a shirt saying ‘Christianity is of the Devil,'” Wittmer said.

First Amendment scholars said the school district’s policy is likely legal and constitutional. Ron Collins, a scholar with the nonprofit First Amendment Center in Washington D.C., said courts give public school officials a “significant amount of latitude” in regulating student dress that could disrupt the classroom or a school function.

“Here, it’s not only a religious expression,” Collins said. “It’s a religious expression that is hostile to other forms of religious expression.”

Collins did note that student speech is afforded more protection at the college or university level.

Catherine Cameron, a faculty member at the Stetson College of Law, said the school district “likely has a good leg to stand on from a First Amendment standpoint” because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in several cases that public schools may quash speech deemed disruptive “even if it steps on the other child’s free speech rights.”

On their front, the T-shirts had a verse from the Gospel of John: “Jesus answered I am the way and the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father except through me,” and this statement, “I stand in trust with Dove Outreach Center.” The message “Islam is of the Devil” is on the back of the shirt.

On Monday, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Talbot Elementary was sent home because of the shirt. On Tuesday, two Eastside High students and one Gainesville High student were sent home and a student at Westwood Middle had to change clothes because of the shirt, according to members of the Dove congregation.

Dove Senior Pastor Terry Jones said no local company “had the guts” to print the shirts. Dove member Wayne Sapp said he then ordered the shirts over the Internet from a company that allows individuals to design their own shirts. His daughter, Faith Sapp , 10, was the Talbot Elementary student sent home Monday. She said she was allowed to wear the shirt to school on Tuesday — with the Gospel message on the front visible but the anti-Islam message on the back covered.

Wayne Sapp’s daughter, Emily Sapp, 15, was the student sent home from Gainesville High on Tuesday. Both Faith and Emily Sapp said it was their decision, not that of their parents, to wear the shirts to school in order to promote their Christian beliefs. Emily Sapp said the “Islam is of the Devil” statement was aimed at the religion’s beliefs, not its members.

“The people are fine,” she said. “The people are people. They can be saved like anyone else.”

Wayne Sapp said he believed the school district’s dress code allowed too much room for subjectivity when principals and school administrators determine what is offensive or distracting clothing.

He added that his children decided it was time to “stand up for what they believe instead of saying the rules might not let me do it” and said that society has grown “so tolerant of being tolerant” that free speech is eroding.

Jones said that, to him, spreading the church’s message was “even more important than education itself.”

All of the Dove members interviewed said that, while they would not like a student wearing a shirt with an anti-Christian message on it to school, they believed students have the right to do it.

Saeed R. Khan, president of the Muslim Association of North Central Florida, said the anti-Islam message should not be accepted when “schools are supposed to be teaching tolerance for others.”

“It’s pretty offensive, isn’t it?” Khan said of the message on the back of the shirt. “Particularly in a school setting where you are trying to create an atmosphere where people are supposed to respect each other and live with each other, where we have people of every ethnicity and every religion.”

Jones and Wayne Sapp said congregation members have not decided whether their children will be allowed to continue to go to school with “Islam is of the Devil” visible on their clothing because they want their children to get an education — and that does not happen when they are sent home for violating the dress code.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or

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