Alabama student says school dress code violates First Amendment

Wednesday, October 13, 1999

Kandi Smith and...
Kandi Smith and her mother, Lisa, pose in their front yard before Kandi leaves for school in Jasper, Ala., on Sept. 28.

After being denied a religious exemption from a public school dress code, an Alabama sixth-grader and her parents have sued the school board, the district superintendent and the school principal.

In early September, Kandice Smith, an 11-year-old student at Curry Middle School in Jasper, was told by the principal to place her cross necklace inside her shirt. The principal cited the dress code, which bars students from wearing jewelry outside their shirts. The policy, however, also states that “reasonable accommodations should be made for religious beliefs if such functioning would not unduly interfere with the effective functioning of the school room.”

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative nonprofit group that defends religious liberties, asked the principal in late September to accommodate Smith’s religious beliefs by allowing her to openly wear the cross. Smith’s request was refused and her principal warned her a second time that she could face detention, suspension or expulsion if she wore the cross outside her shirt.

The ACLJ filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the Walker County Board of Education, the district’s superintendent, and the Curry Middle School principal, charging them with violating Smith’s free-speech and religious-liberty rights.

“Kandice has a sincerely held religious belief that she should visibly wear this cross necklace around her neck as a means of expressing her Christian faith to others,” the ACLJ complaint states. “The wearing of this cross necklace is a means by which Kandice initiates conversations about her faith with her peers. [The district's policy] prohibiting [Kandice] from openly wearing this cross necklace unconstitutionally inhibits her from exercising her religion and places an undue burden on the exercise of her faith.”

Russell Robertson, an attorney for Walker County schools, said last week that he had researched federal case law and that he was convinced the dress code and the principal’s denial of an accommodation for Kandice were constitutional.

In 1995 and again in 1998, the Clinton administration issued guidelines on religious expression in the public schools. The guidelines were compiled by an array of lawyers, academics, civil rights groups and religious organizations, including the First Amendment Center. “Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages,” the guidelines state.

The ACLJ also charges that the dress code runs afoul of the Religious Freedom Amendment to the Alabama Constitution. The amendment requires that any government burden on a person’s free exercise of religion pass the compelling interest/least restrictive means test. That test says that if a government action or law interferes with an individual’s religious liberties, the government must show a compelling interest in enforcing the law and must apply it in the fairest possible way.

Stuart Roth, the ACLJ’s Southeast regional counsel, said the school officials lacked a compelling reason to force Kandice to hide her cross.

“At a time when violence is on the mind of every school administrator, it is certainly understandable that school officials want to exercise more control over students in school,” Roth said. “What is difficult to understand is how a little girl wearing a cross is a threat to anyone. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that undifferentiated fear and speculative harm are not compelling state interests to justify the discriminatory conduct of the school district.”

The Birmingham News opined today that the Walker County dress policy did not amount to a religious-freedom violation and that the ACLJ lawsuit should have never been filed.

“This matter isn’t worth the [girl's] parents’ or school officials’ time,” the editorial states. “And it’s certainly not worth the expense of taxpayer dollars. Requiring the student to wear her cross inside her clothing rather than outside doesn’t infringe on her constitutional right to freedom of religion. Dress codes are a legitimate tool to maintain school discipline and limit disruptions to the learning process. Let’s be clear: The school board isn’t discriminating against the student because of her religion. The policy, in fact, doesn’t address religion at all, because it doesn’t single out or allow exceptions for religious items; no necklaces, religious in nature or not, can be worn outside clothing.”