ACLU Says It Supports the Right of Students at Va. School to Protest -- Against the ACLU

By Adam Brickley | October 1, 2009 | 8:38 PM EDT

Gate City High School, Gate City, Va. (Photo courtesy of Gate City High School)

( – In an ironic twist, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia sent a letter on Thursday to a rural Virginia high school defending the right of students to mount a protest at Friday night’s football game.
The students will be protesting the ACLU.
The protest in tiny Gate City, Va., comes in response to an earlier letter that ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis sent on Sept. 15 to Gate City High School expressing his concern that a student, who had prayed over the public address system before a recent football game, ended his prayer with, “in Jesus’ name.”
In the original Sept. 15 letter, the civil liberties lawyer claimed that the student-led prayer was unconstitutional because of the phrase “in Jesus’ name,” which Willis deemed to be forbidden sectarian language.
In response, a group of students at the high school have printed 1,000 T-shirts with a slogan -- “We still pray in Jesus’ name – Amen” -- to be worn at the school’s football game on Friday against Bluefield (W.Va.) High.
On Thursday, the students received an unlikely vote of support in their campaign against the ACLU -- from Willis and the ACLU.
Writing to high school principal Greg Ervin, Willis said: “I would like to remind you that school officials must respect the First Amendment right of students to engage in this protest.”
In an interview with, Willis explained why the ACLU would support a protest against itself.
“The ACLU, first and foremost, is an organization that protects free speech,” he noted.
Willis admitted the school has not taken action against the protestors, raising questions about what motivated the ACLU to send the second letter in defense of the students.
Was it a publicity stunt on behalf of the ACLU?
“It is fairly typical for schools to want to censor student speech,” Willis told “Our experience suggested to us that the school may decide to react against the students who are planning this protest at the football game. So, we decided to write them and send essentially a friendly reminder to them that the students did indeed have a First Amendment right to attend a football game with these t-shirts with a religious message on them.”
Trevor Smith, one of the students spearheading the T-shirt project, told the whole idea started because “me and a couple of my friends were just sitting in a class one day, coming up with ideas because we knew that the ACLU had sent a letter to our school about praying . . . and we just came up with the t-shirt idea, to put ‘I still pray in Jesus’ name’ on the back.”
According to Smith, their idea gained traction quickly.
“Actually, it started off with us getting one of the first sales, and then word spread out like wildfire,” he said, “and, sure enough, it grew to about six or seven hundred orders.”
Smith said that 700 T-shirts had already been made and that 400 more had been ordered in time for tomorrow’s football game.
Asked about the fact that the ACLU had opposed prayer “In Jesus’ name,” but supported the right of students to oppose the ACLU’s attempt to squelch prayer, Smith was understandably nonplussed.
“It sounds like they just kind of went one way with it and now they’re going the other way with it,” he told
Willis, meanwhile, said regardless of their message, “the students have done something that’s pretty remarkable.”

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