ACLU Sues School District For Punishing Kindergarten Student Because Of Family's Religious Beliefs
Needville Independent School District Violates State Law With Suspension Of Five-Year-Old
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HOUSTON – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas today filed a lawsuit against the Needville Independent School District (NISD) for punishing a five-year-old American Indian kindergarten student for practicing and expressing his family’s religious beliefs and heritage by wearing his hair long in violation of school rules.
School officials have forced A.A. into isolated in-school suspension because he and his family refuse to abide by a district mandate that he stuff his long hair, part of his American Indian religious and cultural heritage, down the back of his shirt while at school – a requirement that would cause A.A. shame, embarrassment and physical discomfort.
“A.A.’s parents have raised him to practice and be proud of his religion and culture as an American Indian, which includes wearing his uncut hair in two long braids,” said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas. “NISD recognized that A.A.’s religious beliefs exempt him from its dress code requirement that boys have short hair, but the alternate policy they adopted for him is still unlawful.”
A.A.’s parents, Kenny Arocha and Micelle Betenbaugh, have raised their son according to his father’s American Indian religious beliefs. Kenny and A.A. Arocha believe that one’s hair should only be cut for life-changing occasions, such as the death of a loved one. They believe their long hair is a sacred symbol of their own lives. The five-year-old’s hair has never been cut.
Nearly eight months after A.A.’s parents first requested an exemption from the district’s dress code, and only after the family appealed the Needville School Board’s initial denial, the district finally conceded less than a week before school started that A.A.’s long hair is part of his religious heritage and that he cannot be forced to cut it.
But instead of simply exempting him from that part of the dress code, NISD officials are requiring that A.A. keep his thick, foot-long hair “tightly woven” into a single braid and stuffed down the back of his shirt at all times, and to re-prove his religious sincerity to NISD officials every school year.
A.A.’s parents have refused to subject their son to this degrading and impracticable policy. His mother, Michelle Betenbaugh, said, “Asking a five-year-old to keep a foot of hair shoved down his shirt is not just humiliating, it is impractical and unhygienic in Houston’s sweltering climate.”
As punishment for non-compliance with its dress code policy, NISD has segregated A.A. from his kindergarten class and assigned him to in-school suspension every school day since Sept. 3. In-school suspension is the harshest discipline the law permits for a child his age.
“NISD is trying to force A.A. and his parents to choose between practicing and expressing his religion and identity, and obtaining a public education,” said Fleming Terrell, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “But Texas law and the First Amendment both prohibit the district from forcing parents and students to make this choice.”
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, charges that NISD’s actions violate Betenbaugh’s and Arocha’s rights to raise A.A. according to their family’s religion, heritage and identity, as well as A.A.’s constitutional and statutory rights to free exercise of religion and free expression. Courts have held that the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution protect students’ rights to dress in conformation with their religious beliefs. Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides additional protections.
“The Constitution protects the right of all people in this country to express their religious beliefs as they see fit,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The same law protects Catholic students who wear a rosary, Christian students who wear a cross or Jewish students who wear a Star of David. Yet the school board has ignored this basic principle by punishing this young child’s expression of his faith and heritage.”
A copy of the lawsuit is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion/schools/37019lgl20081001.html
Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief can be found online at: www.aclu.org/religion/index.html
Additional information about the ACLU of Texas is available online at: www.aclutx.org
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