Fifth Circuit Upholds Religious Rights Of American Indian Kindergartner

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
July 9, 2010 12:00 am

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Needville Independent School District Cannot Punish Student For Expressing His Family’s Religious Beliefs And Heritage

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AUSTIN – A federal appeals court today upheld a lower court ruling that the Needville Independent School District (NISD) violated Texas state law by punishing a five-year-old American Indian kindergarten student for wearing his hair in traditional braids as a form of expressing his family’s religious beliefs. The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas.

“We feel vindicated in our belief that no parents should be forced to choose between their religion and culture, and a public education for their children,” said the boy’s parents, Kenney Arocha and Michelle Betenbaugh. “We are grateful to the ACLU of Texas for its support in this long fight. As parents we are relieved that our son can continue his education without being shamed for his beliefs.”

U.S. District Court Judge Keith P. Ellison in January 2009 granted a request by the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas that the boy, known in court proceedings by his initials A.A., be allowed to wear his hair at school in two long braids in observance of his religious heritage. School officials, who had initially placed the student in in-school suspension for violating the school district’s dress code requiring boys to have short hair, appealed the ruling. The lawsuit was filed October 2, 2008, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Needville is a small town near Houston.

“We are gratified that the appeals court affirmed Judge Ellison’s ruling protecting the rights of this child and his parents. This is an important victory for all Texas schoolchildren, whatever their religion,” said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas. “Under Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), schools must accommodate student religious beliefs in their dress codes — and that applies as equally to Catholic students’ right to wear a rosary or Jewish students’ right to wear a yarmulke as it does to our American Indian client’s right to wear his braids.”

“Public schools should not be in the business of punishing children for harmless expressions of their religious and cultural heritage,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “We are pleased that the appellate court’s decision safeguards this family’s fundamental religious liberty.”

Today’s decision was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Lawyers in Arocha v. Needville Independent School District include Graybill, Mach and cooperating counsel Sinead O’Carroll of Reeves & Brightwell LLP in Austin.

A copy of the memorandum and order may be downloaded here:

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