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Texas School District Refuses to Acknowledge First Amendment

Fleming Terrell,
ACLU of Texas
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December 8, 2009

The Needville Independent School District (NISD) in Texas just isn’t willing to accept that a Houston-area kindergartener, identified in court by his initials A.A., wears his long braids as an exercise of his Native American religion—nor that the U.S. Constitution and Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA) require them to accommodate A.A’s religious exercise.

In November 2007, A.A.’s parents requested an exemption to the school district grooming code’s requirement that boys have short hair. After months of denying A.A.’s requests for this exemption, just days before the school year began in August 2008, NISD enacted a humiliating and uncomfortable policy that required A.A. to keep his hair in a single, tightly woven braid stuffed down the back of his shirt when at school. A.A. and his parents refused the school’s district’s mandate that he hide the braids that are a symbol of his faith, and A.A. spent a month segregated from his classmates in in-school suspension for standing up for his beliefs.

This punishment only stopped when the ACLU and ACLU of Texas filed a lawsuit in October 2008, and immediately after the filing, a temporary restraining order returned A.A. to class with his long braids. This past January, a federal district judge ruled (PDF) this policy violated A.A.’s First Amendment rights and violated the TRFRA.

But NISD’s struggle to force the boy to conform to their appearance standards without regard for his religious beliefs didn’t end there. Last Friday, attorneys for NISD complained in oral argument before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that the district court improperly substituted its judgment for that of school administrators about how best to implement the school’s grooming code.

But the truth is that NISD unlawfully substituted its judgment for that of A.A. and his family about how best to practice their Native American faith. As the ACLU argued in response, the Texas legislature, through TRFRA, requires NISD to look at the burden its punitive policy imposes on A.A. from the boy’s perspective, not their own. This echoes the deference federal courts have long given to individuals’ sincere interpretations of their religious beliefs—and how they should be practiced—under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Both clearly support the order returning A.A. to class, but since we found ourselves once again arguing the point in court last week, it seems that NISD still just doesn’t get it.

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