ACLU Says Louisiana Dress Code Denies Rastafarian Children the Right to an Education

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
September 18, 2000 12:00 am

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Statement of Joe Cook, Executive Director ACLU of Louisiana

LAFAYETTE, LA–The American Civil Liberties Union believes that Rastafarian children have the right to enroll in and attend school without having to choose between their religion and their education. In pursuit of that right, the ACLU today filed a lawsuit on behalf of two parents and their eight children who profess and practice the Rastafarian faith, tradition and belief system.

Acting on behalf of Georgiana Helaire and her seven children and Edgar Green and his one child, we are asking that the court allow the children to enroll in school immediately and declare the provisions of the Lafayette Parish School Board’s dress code concerning hair length and head coverings an unconstitutional deprivation of Free Exercise and free speech rights.

The ACLU filed this lawsuit after repeated unsuccessful attempts, since April, by the parents to enroll their children in public schools. The Superintendent, the Director of Schools, and the Lafayette Parish School Board have told the parents that their children may not attend school if they maintain their Rastafarian physical appearance.

In accordance with Rastafarian tradition, the children wear their hair in dreadlocks and cover their head and hair when outside the home and/or when in public because it is a form of religious expression and practice amongst the Rastafarian community. Theistic Rastafarians cite Old Testament scripture on this claim.

Superintendent Michael Zolkoski, Director of Schools Charles Dennis, and the Lafayette Parish School Board are depriving these children of their First Amendment rights to a free exercise of religion and freedom of expression and equal protection rights to a public school education under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Lafayette Parish School officials’ zero tolerance on its dress code makes zero sense, especially when it has denied eight innocent children a basic education for months. Public school officials must cease treating students like inmates in prison and allow them to fully exercise their inalienable rights. To do otherwise discounts important principles of our government as mere platitudes and strangles the free mind at its source.

The dress code says that students may not wear “head-wear?except knit caps in extremely cold weather,” and “hair on male students should not descend below the bottom of the earlobe to touch the top of the collar in the back. No pony tails, pig tails, or extremes in hair styles are permitted.”

However, the Supreme Court has consistently recognized that students do not “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate” and that rights such as religious liberty must be taken into account. Affirming that principle, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, has said “…that the broad authority of school officials over educational matters must be exercised in a manner that comports with fundamental constitutional safeguards.”

In fact, two district courts in the Fifth Circuit have struck down hair-related dress codes that violated free exercise of religion rights. The courts have said that in order to prevail on a First Amendment claim, a person must prove only that beliefs regarding the wearing of head coverings and/or “engaging in certain hair grooming practices were rooted in religion and sincerely held” and that the enforcement of the school dress code has a coercive effect which operated to prevent free exercise of those religious beliefs.

The ACLU of Louisiana filed the case with cooperating attorneys Eugene Thomas and Marjorie Esman of New Orleans and David Benoit of Breaux Bridge.

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