ACLU Sues School District for Punishing Kindergarten Student Because of Family’s Religious Beliefs

For Immediate Release

ACLU
Contact: 

Will Matthews, ACLU National, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org
Dotty Griffith, ACLU Foundation of Texas, (512) 478-7300, ext. 106; dgriffith@aclutx.org

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

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 Adriel
Arocha 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 Adriel
shame, embarrassment and physical discomfort.

"Adriel Arocha'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 Adriel'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."

Adriel's parents, Kenny Arocha and
Micelle Betenbaugh, have raised their son according to his father's
American Indian religious beliefs. Kenny and Adriel 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 Adriel'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 Adriel'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
Adriel 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.

Adriel'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 Adriel 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 Adriel 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 Adriel
according to their family's religion, heritage and identity, as well as
Adriel'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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