Alabama school district settles dispute over cross necklace

Wednesday, March 1, 2000

An Alabama public school district will no longer threaten to punish an 11-year-old student for wearing a cross to school.

The American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Kandice Smith, a sixth-grader at Curry Middle School in Jasper, and the Walker County School Board entered a settlement agreement yesterday. The agreement brings to an end the federal litigation that began last September when Smith’s principal told her to place her cross necklace underneath her shirt or face suspension. The principal cited a county dress code that barred all jewelry from being worn outside students’ clothing.

“The Defendants, their officers, agents, employees, successors, and all other persons acting in active concert with them shall be permanently enjoined from enforcing the Walker County Public Schools Mandatory Dress Code in a manner that prohibits Plaintiff Kandice Smith from engaging in First Amendment expressive activity in accordance with her sincerely held religious beliefs by openly wearing her cross necklace outside her shirt, blouse, or school uniform for the entire time period she is in attendance in Walker County Public Schools,” states the agreement signed by Judge Inge P. Johnson.

The agreement in Smith v. Walker County Board of Education also awards Kandice $30,000 in attorneys and court fees. The ACLJ agreed to drop the federal lawsuit against the school.

“The law is clear that religious expression such as wearing a cross is protected expression pursuant to both the United States Constitution and the Alabama Constitution,” said Stuart Roth, ACLJ’s Alabama legal director. “These are very important constitutional safeguards that we must defend whenever they are threatened.”

Russell B. Robertson, an Alabama attorney representing Walker County school officials, disagreed that the case was as clear-cut as the ACLJ presented it. Robertson said the board’s decision to settle was based on financial considerations — not the legal merits of the case.

Robertson says no precedent exists for a situation regarding a dress code that supposedly infringes on a student’s religious liberties.

He added that the district had not and would not prohibit other Walker County students from wearing jewelry with religious symbols or emblems outside their clothing on school grounds.

Guidelines on religious liberty in the public schools, which the Clinton administration has issued nationwide, state that “Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages.”