Tennessee school settles lawsuit with Christian student punished for wearing anti-gay shirt
Brielle Penkoski was told to change her shirt or go home. She went home. Then she sued.
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Back in the fall of 2020, a Christian teenager was sent home from school for wearing an anti-gay shirt to school. Now, after years of legal wrangling, the school district has finally settled the case.
Brielle Penkoski, then 15, was sent home from Livingston Academy, a public high school in Tennessee, for wearing a shirt saying “Homosexuality is a sin” after she refused to change out of it.
The shirt cited 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, a passage that says sinners (including thieves, alcoholics, con artists, and those who are sexually immoral) will not inherit God’s kingdom.
The school justified its decision by saying the shirt had a “sexual connotation.” It wasn’t her faith that was a problem—a “John 3:16” shirt would’ve been fine—it was the inappropriate nature of her message. (To be honest, I would have argued the shirt was hateful, not sexual. While the Bible verses call out all kinds of sin, she singled out a particular one to rile up certain classmates.)
That sort of behavior was also in line with the activism of her father, Rich Penkoski.
He’s a street preacher who once filed a lawsuit over Washington D.C.’s “Black Lives Matter Plaza”—with the yellow words painted on the road leading up to the White House—because he and his colleagues said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had broken the law by establishing the “Black Lives Matter cult, which is a denominational sect of the religion of Secular Humanism.” His former ministry, Warriors for Christ, also (hilariously) threatened to ban anyone who used a rainbow emoji on their facebook page… leading to exactly what you’d expect.
More recently, he was hit with a five-year restraining order after making social media posts condemning a drag show and, separately, a same-sex wedding that took place at a progressive church. (The couple said he was harassing and threatening them. He denied those claims and is appealing the order.)
All that’s to say: His daughter shares his views when it comes to religion… which is why she wore that shirt.
Rich Penkoski didn’t buy the school’s argument that the Bible shirt violated school policy:
“She wanted to do this on her own. She wanted to go there to … express her values like all the other kids do,” he added. “They’ve got kids walking around with the pride symbol on their sneakers and pride clothing and nobody bats an eye.”
“She was basically censored,” Penkoski continued. “It’s not fair … that she’s told that she can’t wear that shirt and other people can wear the stuff that they wear.”
Penkoski argues that teachers “are pushing Joe Biden … [and] pushing the rainbow stuff.”
That’s not a double standard, though. Supporting LGBTQ students isn’t the same as promoting sex. It’s supporting students as they are. It’s conservative Christians who can’t see them beyond what they might do in a bedroom.
Still, Penkoski wasn’t entirely out of line here. In 2005, an Ohio student got in similar trouble for wearing a shirt with a Bible verse on the front and “Homosexuality is a sin! Islam is a lie! Abortion is murder! Some issues are just black and white!” on the back. A judge eventually ruled in that student’s favor, calling it offensive (but protected) political speech.
That’s why Penkoski eventually filed a lawsuit against the Overton County Board of Education on behalf of his daughter. The lawsuit noted that the school had a dress code that prohibited “offensive messages, including advertisements for drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sexual connotations or double meanings,” but “sexual connotations” and “double meanings” were never properly defined. It went on to say:
The suit claims the girl’s rights were violated by the school, violating her Freedom of Speech, Free Exercise of Religion, Due Process, Equal Protection, and rights under the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2009.
It was hard for me to imagine a Christian student was seriously hampered by the school enforcing its dress code, just as it seemed futile to argue the school was acting anti-Christian. It didn’t seem unfair to ask her to change clothes or cover up the shirt with a sweater.
Over the next year, the lawsuit was amended to go after principal Richard Melton and teacher Stephen Henson in their individual capacities. Those charges, however, were eventually dismissed.
Now—finally—the case is over… and both sides avoided any ruling on the merits.
According to a copy of the settlement I was provided, neither side will have to admit any wrongdoing. Still, the Overton Board of Education will pay Brielle (a symbolic) $101 as well as her (very real) attorneys’ fees. The Board will also cover two-thirds of the cost of the mediator while the Penkoskis will cover the rest.
(It should be noted that while the principal is still at the school, the teacher has transferred to a different one. The Penkoskis have since moved out of Tennesee.)
In a phone call over the weekend, Penkoski told me he felt vindicated: “Free speech is free speech.” He added that he would feel the same way if another student wore an anti-Jesus shirt even if he didn’t like it. While he wasn’t sure what the attorneys’ fees would amount to, he was glad he fought this battle.
I was curious why he, of all people, sent his daughter to a public school given the way conservative Christians like him often demean what’s taught there.
“I pay taxes like everyone else,” he explained. “I don't have a problem with public schools. Why do we, as Christians, have to cut and run?"
As for Brielle, she just completed her first semester in college and had no regrets about wearing the shirt. She said that most people didn’t even react when she wore it, implying that it wouldn’t have been a big deal had the administration not taken action against her. Some students, she pointed out, even high-fived her because of the message. (I would argue that says more about the people in that community.)
The only thing she didn’t appreciate were the threats she received online after the story got picked up by the media. While the backlash has died down since the incident first happened, it’s possible the settlement will generate more vitriol against the family.
For now, the district hasn’t said anything publicly about the settlement.
(Portions of this article were posted earlier)