ACLU Asks Court to Halt Mississippi School's "Gang Symbol" Ban on Star of David Necklace

Affiliate: ACLU of Mississippi
August 23, 1999 12:00 am

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GULFPORT, MS -- Seeking to halt a "blatant constitutional violation,"the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi is asking a federal district court to allow 11th grader Ryan Green to wear his Star of David necklace, which school officials say is a "gang symbol but which most people recognize as a symbol of Jewish faith.

In legal papers filed late last week, the ACLU said that a school board review of the ban may not take place for another two weeks and that in the meantime 16-year-old Ryan Green and other students at Harrison Central High School should not be made to risk punishment and suspension for exercising their First Amendment right to religious liberty.

"We are not convinced the school will make the right decision, but we do know that the United States Supreme Court, in similar cases, has prohibited this kind of ban," said David Ingebretsen, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. "It's pretty basic stuff, actually," he added.

The controversy arose during school registration, when a guidance counselor told Ryan and his father, Tom Green, that Ryan would have to tuck the necklace inside his shirt because the six-pointed star could be a gang symbol. Mr. Green explained to the counselor, to no avail, that Ryan wore the necklace as symbol of his family's Jewish faith.

The family then appealed to school officials, who insisted that the Star of David could be seen as a gang symbol; last Monday, a school board panel voted unanimously to uphold a policy prohibiting students from wearing anything that might be considered "inappropriate."

"I am not wearing the Star of David to make people think I am a member of some criminal gang," Ryan Green said in an affidavit submitted to the court on Friday. "I am wearing it because of my Jewish religious heritage."

As the ACLU noted in its complaint, the school's dress code prohibits any "inappropriate dress" but does not mention "gangs" or "gang symbols," or anything about the Star of David, the cross, or any other religious symbol.

"Under the school board's approach, these so-called 'gangs' can end up dictating the types of speech and religious expressions that others will be permitted to convey,"said Robert McDuff, a volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Mississippi.

"If a 'gang' formally adopts William Shakespeare as its inspirational muse, will his plays be removed from the library for fear violence may ensue?" he added.

McDuff also noted that organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan have appropriated the Christian cross as their own symbol, but that no students wearing crosses had been singled out by the school.

That religious insensitivity may stem from the fact that the Greens live in the Bible Belt, where fewer than 100 Jewish families live among a population of 360,000.

The ACLU's lawsuit seeks to suspend the policy until the school board announces the results of its next review, scheduled to be announced on September 7. If the board again upholds the policy, the ACLU said it will pursue further legal action.

The case is Green v. Harrison County School District et al., filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Southern Division. McDuff, of Jackson, is lead counsel, working with attorney Reilly Morse of Gulfport.

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