Court protects students wearing religious symbols

Sunday, November 23, 1997

A pop quiz: What's the difference between rosary beads and gang symbols? A yarmulke and a baseball cap?

For some public school officials, the answer to both questions is: “Nothing.”

When David and Jerry, high-school students in Texas, wore their rosary beads to school, they were told to hide them under their shirts. It seems that school officials were afraid that the beads—used by Roman Catholics while praying the rosary — would be perceived by other students as gang paraphernalia.

In Michigan, meanwhile, a school principal told a Jewish boy to take his hat off because the district had a “no caps” policy — also an attempt to control the influence of gangs.

Administrators in both cases justified their actions by appealing to the compelling need to keep gangs out of schools — although the Texas district didn't have a history of gang activity. Besides, the Texas officials argued, Roman Catholics aren't required to wear rosary beads as jewelry. And the Michigan principal pointed out that the boy in question was wearing a regular cap — not the traditional yarmulke, or skull cap.

After an expensive lawsuit, David and Jerry won the right to wear rosary beads outside their shirts. The court ruled that forbidding them to do so violated the boys' rights to free speech and freedom of religion. The school hadn't shown that allowing the students to wear the beads would disrupt the educational environment. In Michigan, school officials backed down and permitted the boy to wear his cap.

It didn't matter that David and Jerry weren't required by church law to wear rosary beads or that the Jewish student chose to wear a nontraditional head covering. All three based their actions on sincere, deeply held religious convictions. And nothing they were doing interfered with the educational mission of their schools.

Under the First Amendment, all Americans have the right to practice their faith openly and freely without governmental interference. Sometimes the government can and must step in to limit religious practice — but it must have a very good reason for doing so.

Aren't we glad to live in a nation committed to liberty of conscience? In France, Muslim girls in state-funded schools are told to take off their scarves. Thanks to the First Amendment, students in America are rarely asked to make the cruel choice between practicing their faith and pursuing an education in the public schools.

Of course, gangs are a real problem in many schools. Why should religious students be exempt from rules that apply to everyone else?

Because our nation's founders understood that religious conviction must be given special protection. James Madison, chief author of the First Amendment, argued that religious liberty is an “unalienable right” of every human being. What Madison called “the duty toward the Creator” is “precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

In other words, religious people have a higher authority than the state in their lives. And, insofar as it is possible, the state must protect their right to follow “the dictates of conscience.”

To some, the issues in Texas and Michigan may seem trivial, but to the students and parents involved, a precious, fundamental principle was at stake. Rosary beads are not gang symbols. A yarmulke is not a baseball cap.