ACLU and 18 Texas Families Sue to Stop 'Prove Your Religion' School Uniform Policy

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
March 16, 2000 12:00 am

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FORNEY, TX — The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas today sued a school district here on behalf of 18 families saying that students should not be forced to submit proof of faith to be exempted from the mandatory school uniform policy.

At issue is the Forney Independent School District uniform policy, which requires that students wear uniforms to school and to school-related activities during school hours. The Texas Education Code allows school districts to adopt such a uniform policy only if there is an “opt-out” provision for students who have bona fide religious or philosophical objections.

The District requires each person seeking an exemption to fill out a questionnaire that inquires into the person’s religious and philosophical beliefs and practices. Among other inquiries, the questionnaire asks whether the student has ever worn any type of uniform in the past.

The ACLU says that the policy violates the Establishment Clause by inquiring into the substance or sincerity of religious or philosophical beliefs and arbitrarily creates and singles out a class of citizens for disparate and adverse treatment.

“Requiring students to wear uniforms goes far beyond a reasonable dress code calculated to promote decorum and safety,” said Lawrence Fischman, an ACLU of Texas cooperating attorney who filed the case with the assistance of Lorie Burch, a law student at George Washington University.

“It is an arbitrary, heavy-handed intrusion into the most fundamental individual rights: the rights of parents to determine how best to rear their children and the right of the students to express their individuality, subject only to parental control,” Fischman said. “It is a small but significant step in the erosion of individual liberty.”

According to ACLU court papers, the questionnaire is a “sham which is actually calculated and used to deny exemptions.” The seven-count ACLU complaint argues violation of First Amendment Rights based on the students freedom of expression; Ninth Amendment violation of both students’ and parents’ right of privacy; and denial of students’ and parents’ religious freedom under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

“The decision in this case will be significant,” said Jay Jacobson, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas.

“It will set parameters for how the Texas Education Code policy on uniforms is to be applied,” Jacobson added, saying that the case that is the first broad-based attack on the manner in which the “opt-out” provision is exercised.

The suit was brought by cooperating ACLU of Texas attorney Lawrence Fischman of Glast, Phillips & Murray of Dallas. The case is Sissy Littlefield et al. V. Forney Independent School District, et al. and was filed in U.S. District Court, Northern Division, Dallas Division.

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