The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: (202) 466-3234,Joe Conn,Rob Boston,Sandhya Bathija

AU Lauds Court Decision Upholding Native American Student's Religious Liberty Rights

Watchdog Group Had Filed Court Brief in Texas Case to Support Religious Freedom


A federal appeals court was right to rule that a Native American
student in Texas may wear his hair long for religious reasons, says
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled
Friday in favor of Adriel Arocha, an elementary school student. Arocha
and his family had challenged a grooming policy at the Needville
Independent School District that bans long hair for male students.

"This boy wants to follow the teachings of his faith while attending
school, and he should be able to do so," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn,
Americans United executive director. "Public schools must never sponsor
religious activities, but at the same time, they are obligated to allow
voluntary student religious expression that doesn't interfere with the
rights of others."

The Needville school district's policy does not allow boys to wear
their hair past their collars or over their eyes. School officials met
with Adriel's family but refused to grant them a religiously based
exemption to the policy.

The appeals court agreed with the family. In a 2-1 ruling, it held
that the school's policy violates the Texas Religious Freedom
Restoration Act, a state law ensuring religious liberty.

"As the district court found, [Adriel] has already recognized that he
has been treated differently because of his hair," the court held.
"And, given that [Adriel] understands that his hair is part of the
practice and expression of his Native American beliefs, the obvious
lesson is that he is being treated differently because of his religion.
This recognition risks feelings of shame and resentment, a risk that,
while real now, will continue to grow."

Americans United and the Anti-Defamation League filed a
friend-of-the-court brief in A.A. v. Needville Independent School
, urging the court to rule in the boy's favor. The brief
was drafted by attorneys David Gossett and Maria Glover of the Mayer
Brown law firm with input from AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and AU
Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.