ACLU Wins Ruling Protecting Kindergartener's Religious Expression

January 22, 2009

Court Prohibits School from Punishing American Indian Student for His Long Braids

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

HOUSTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the ACLU today praised a federal judge's decision that Needville Independent School District (NISD) violated the Constitution and state law by punishing a five-year-old American Indian kindergarten student for practicing and expressing his family's religious beliefs and heritage. The decision permanently forbids NISD from applying its policy requiring the student to wear his long hair in a tight braid stuffed down his shirt at all times.

"By standing up for their rights, this child and his parents achieved an important victory not just for themselves but for all Texas school children, whatever their religion," said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas. "Schools must accommodate student religious beliefs in their dress codes—and that applies 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."

Well before school started in August, the kindergartener's parents requested a religious exemption to NISD's dress code that requires boys to keep their hair short. After months of procedural maneuvers that the court viewed as "designed to make Plaintiffs' abandon their [exemption] request, or leave the district, rather than to seriously consider [the boy's] religious beliefs," NISD adopted the challenged policy instead. When the boy nevertheless attended school with two long braids, in accordance with his family's religious and cultural practices, school officials forced him into in-school suspension. On October 3, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Keith P. Ellison issued a temporary order returning the boy to his regular class.

"The court's decision vindicates what I always knew, that no family should be forced to choose between their religion and culture and a public education for their children," said the boy's father, Kenney Arocha. "My son has been doing very well in school since he returned to class, and loves his teachers and all of his new friends, so I hope that now we can finally put this issue behind us."

"We are delighted the court barred the school from punishing this young boy's expression of his faith and heritage," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 2 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Today's ruling holds that NISD's policy for A.A.'s hair violates the student's right to religious freedom under the First Amendment and Texas' Religious Freedom Restoration Act; his right to free expression under the First Amendment; and his parents' fundamental rights to direct his religious upbringing under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. It permanently enjoins NISD from enforcing its policy for A.A.'s hair.

"Particularly in light of the religious and cultural repression American Indians have faced historically, this decision comes as a powerful reminder of the values our Constitution guarantees to all Americans regardless of creed," said Fleming Terrell, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Texas.

Lawyers on the case, Arocha v. Needville Independent School District, are Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas; Fleming Terrell, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Texas, and Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

More information about the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion/index.html

A copy of the Memorandum and Order may be downloaded at: www.aclutx.org/files/2009%2001%2020%20Order.pdf

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