Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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October 9, 2008

“A.A.” is a 5-year-old kindergartner in Needville, Texas. Last Friday, a Texas judge ordered A.A. back to school after weeks of being denied that opportunity.

The trouble all started on his first day of school last month, when A.A. arrived at school with his long hair tied into two neat and tidy braids — a violation, according to school officials, of the Needville Independent School District (NISD) dress code that prohibits boys from having long hair. As punishment, school administrators forced A.A. to spend his days in isolated in-school suspension.

Now be sure — A.A., in all of his 5-year-old glory, is not just wantonly disregarding the dress code in a brazen act of protest (though if he was, his right to do so might well be constitutionally protected). Rather, his braids are a reflection of his and his family’s traditional American Indian religious beliefs — one of which holds that his hair is a sacred indicator of how long he has been on earth, and should rarely be cut.

Apparently, to Needville school officials, forcing all students to strictly adhere to NISD’s arbitrary dress code is more important than making an accommodation for the religious beliefs of a young boy and his family — even if failing to do so is a clear violation of his constitutional right to freely express his religion and heritage.

Last Thursday, the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief filed a lawsuit on A.A.’s behalf. This filing, at least preliminarily, struck a chord with a U.S. district court judge. On Friday, a district judge granted the ACLU’s request that A.A. be allowed to attend kindergarten in his regularly-assigned classroom with his peers while the lawsuit is litigated. The district’s ghastly and punitive action against A.A. for his sin of being “different” has, at least for now, been halted.

But give it to school district officials — they didn’t go down without taking a few wild swings that bordered on the absurd.

In what was a likely preview of the district’s defense of their actions, should this case go to trial, lawyers representing NISD argued on Friday that, unlike students who wear a Christian cross or Star of David around their necks, A.A. shouldn’t be allowed to keep his hair long because the religious meaning behind his doing so wouldn’t be readily understood by those around him. After all, district lawyers argued (and I’m not making this up!), Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson both have long hair which they often wear in braids and, since their hairstyles are not motivated by their American Indian heritage or religious faith, how could people possibly understand that A.A.’s is?

District lawyers also had the gall to argue that A.A. was doing well in in-school suspension, and that keeping him in isolation was just as good as his being in class with his fellow kindergartners — his education wasn’t being compromised at all. Sure sounds like a separate-but-equal argument if I’ve ever heard one. The fact that the Constitution ensures the flourishing of a rich array of religious faiths and expressions is part of what makes this country so special and unique — and whether they understand it or not, folks in Needville cannot be exempted from that fundamental principle.

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