Divided 5th Circuit: Texas boy can wear braids to school

Monday, July 12, 2010

HOUSTON — A federal appeals court has ruled that a Texas school district cannot punish an American Indian student for wearing his hair in traditional braids to express his family's religious beliefs.

The 2-1 ruling, A.A. v. Needville Independent School District, from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upholds an earlier decision by a federal judge in Houston.

The boy's parents, Kenney Arocha and Michelle Betenbaugh, argued that their son, identified in court papers as A.A., has a right to wear a hairstyle that conforms to his Native American religious beliefs. Kenney Arocha hasn't cut his hair in 11 years, believing the long braids have religious meaning. His son's hair has never been cut.

The boy, who was a kindergartener when his parents filed suit in 2008, wears his 13-inch-long hair in two braids outside his shirt.

The Needville Independent School District argued its grooming policy requires a boy's hair to not cover his ears or touch the top of his shirt collar. The policy is designed to teach proper hygiene, promote discipline and avoid disruptions in school, according to Roger Hepworth, a lawyer for the district.

School officials initially refused to exempt the boy but later allowed him to wear his hair in a bun on top of his head or in a single braid tucked into his shirt. His parents challenged that proposal.

A federal judge then barred the district from disciplining the boy.

On July 9, the majority of the three-judge 5th Circuit panel agreed with the lower court, finding that the school district’s policy violated the boy’s free-exercise of religion rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham wrote: A.A. “has a sincere religious belief in wearing his hair uncut and in plain view; that belief is substantially burdened by the District’s grooming policy — even with the District’s proffered exemptions; and the District has put forth insufficient justification for its persistence in this matter.”

“We feel vindicated in our beliefs that no parents should be forced to choose between their religion and culture and a public education for their children,” Arocha and Betenbaugh said in a news release. “As parents, we are relieved that our son can continue his education without being shamed for his beliefs.”

A message left with the school district's administrative office was not returned in time for this story.

During arguments before the appeals court, Judge E. Grady Jolly pressed Hepworth to explain why the district had prolonged the court challenge rather than allow the boy to wear his hairstyle of choice.

“It's not the (lower) court's job to decide how the policy should be,” Hepworth said. “It's the school district's, within constitutional limits.”

Jolly dissented from the majority, writing that A.A.’s religious liberty would not be substantially burdened by having to wearing his hair in a bun or tucking a single braid into a shirt.

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