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Federal court orders Texas school district to accommodate students’ religious braids

by | Sep 9, 2019

For two years, brothers Cesar and Diego Gonzales have been prohibited from participating in extracurricular activities (such as academic clubs and football) because of their school district’s dress code, which bars boys from having hair past their collar. That rule conflicts with the family’s decision to keep a portion of their hair uncut and braided as a sign of their faith. A request for religious accommodation, which had been granted until the boys reached 7th grade, was denied.

Last week, a federal district court issued a preliminary injunction ordering Texas’ Mathis Independent School District to accommodate the requests, allowing them to participate in sports and other school activities while litigation is ongoing. (For now, the injunction only applies to one brother because of an outstanding procedural question).

Under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the government may not impose as substantial burden on religious exercise unless it is required by a compelling government interest.  The school district failed, according to the court’s order, to provide any evidence to meet its burden to demonstrate that the restriction is necessary. The judge referenced testimony of the boys’ mother to explain the high stakes.

Belen [Gonzales] testified about her concerns that extracurricular activities are stepping stones for the children realizing who they can and want to be. Such group endeavors help children unlock their potential, dabbling in different types of work to learn what fits best with their needs and talents. Not being exposed to that has deprived them of opportunities for learning, growth, and socialization with friends they have grown up with.

Belen worries that continued exclusion will deny her children of accomplishments necessary for presenting effective college application resumes. In particular, D.G. testified that he has been interested in science and math clubs in the past and would like to participate in computer programming, designing, and technology activities, as they are directly relevant to his future career goals.

Students should not be forced to choose between the requirements of their religious faith and full participation in school activities if there is no important reason justifying that difficult choice. School districts can enforce rules to maintain order and carry out their educational mission, but when those rules burden a student’s religious beliefs, laws like Texas’ RFRA require school officials to demonstrate why that restriction is necessary. That might be an uphill climb here. How does a carefully tucked braid interfere with the activities of the math club?

Becket, which represents the family, praised the judge’s decision and called on the school district to back down from its position:

After two years of needless bullying of students of faith, it’s now clear that the school district is breaking the law,” said Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket. “Mathis Independent School District should stop this foolish fight and do the right thing.”

For more on this story, see coverage from San Antonio’s KTSA News.