School board bars Star of David necklace as possible gang symbol

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

A school board in Mississippi has voted to bar a student from wearing a Star of David pendant because it could be seen as gang apparel.

On Aug. 16 the Harrison County School Board unanimously supported a district policy that prohibits Gulfport public school students from wearing anything that could be construed as a gang symbol. The board's consideration of the policy was prompted by a student at Harrison Central High School who was told by the principal last week to tuck his Star of David necklace into his T-shirt.

Ryan Green, an 11th-grader, and his father Tom told school officials that the necklace represented Ryan's Jewish faith. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, which the parents have contacted, Ryan was told by Principal Janelle Parker to conceal the necklace.

After Monday night's vote, Larry Johnson, chief of security for Harrison County and Gulfport schools, told The Sun Herald, a Biloxi/Gulfport daily, that the Jewish star could be viewed by gang members in the community as a rival symbol. Johnson said the district policy is meant only to prevent violence from erupting in the schools, not to muzzle religious beliefs.

“You have to be proactive,” Johnson said. “You have to neutralize things and let them know that school is a neutral place.”

David Ingebretsen, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said that his group would sue the school district on behalf of the Greens in federal court. Ingebretsen, who attended the school board meeting, said the suit would be filed within a matter of days.

“Ryan Green's Star of David necklace is clearly an expression of his Jewish faith, just as a necklace with a cross is an expression of Christian faith,” Ingebretsen said. “These and other religious symbols are constitutionally protected religious speech. I think it is a sad day indeed when the school officials' concerns about gangs are permitted to trump a student's First Amendment rights. I also believe that in the wake of the violent anti-Semitic-fueled shootings in Los Angeles, the action by the school board was very insensitive – school officials should be teaching tolerance and a respect for diversity.”

Green and the ACLU have on their side federal case law, including a decision out of Texas, and guidelines issued by the Clinton administration regarding religious expression in the public schools.

In 1997, U.S. District Judge David Hittner struck down a Texas public school district policy that forbade students from wearing rosaries outside their clothing while on school grounds. The school policy included rosaries, which are a symbol rooted in orthodox Catholic beliefs, among gang-related apparel not to be worn on campus. Two students at New Caney High School, however, challenged the policy as a violation of their free-speech and religious-liberty rights.

Hittner said that federal court precedent backed the two students' claim that they had First Amendment rights – under both the free-speech and free-exercise clauses — to wear their rosaries at school.

“This court does not doubt that a dress code can be one means of restricting gang activity on campus,” Hittner wrote in Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District. “However, while this court will not endeavor to make a comprehensive list, surely there are a number of more effective means available to [the school district], other than a blanket ban on wearing rosaries, to control gang activity and ensure the safety of schools.”

In 1995, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley sent to every public school superintendent in the country guidelines on Religious Expression in the Public Schools. The guidelines reflect several basic obligations imposed on the schools, he said, including one that bars school officials from forbidding “students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs.” An array of academics, lawyers and nonprofit groups, including the First Amendment Center, helped Riley create the guidelines.

The section in the guidelines on student clothing states that although school officials have “substantial discretion” in enforcing dress codes, they “may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation.”