School officials ease up on uniform enforcement

Sunday, January 16, 2000

It was a great day for religious freedom this week when Aaron Ganues returned to school — without a uniform.

Remember Aaron? He's the 9-year-old who was suspended twice last year from school in Halifax County, N.C., for refusing to wear the school uniform. Aaron's great-grandmother — a preacher who is also his guardian — argued that complying with the dress code would violate the family's belief that uniforms teach student to obey authority mindlessly, making them vulnerable to the Antichrist.

Aaron lost the first round in court last February when a judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction to keep him in school without the uniform. After that ruling, Aaron's great-grandmother began driving him nearly 400 miles a week to a private, church-run school she couldn't afford.

But then in December, the same court refused the school board's request for summary judgment and ordered a trial. The judge ruled that two constitutional rights are at issue in this case: free exercise of religion and parental rights.

Faced with having to argue that the dress code trumps not one, but two fundamental rights, school officials decided to avoid a trial by reaching a settlement through mediation.

The result is great news for the First Amendment. Not only is the school district excusing Aaron from the uniform policy, but it is also amending the policy to allow exemptions for others with sincere religious beliefs. Moreover, Halifax County will pay for the cost of Aaron's schooling while he was suspended from the public school.

Some readers may be surprised to learn that the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina represented Aaron's family in this case. Judging from my mail, many people view the ACLU as hostile to religion. But Aaron's case is just one of many instances in which the ACLU has stood up for the religious-liberty rights of individual citizens.

This case isn't about the benefits or drawbacks of school uniforms; it's about liberty of conscience. Aaron's great-grandmother is asking for the right to follow what she believes God requires, the right to obey what our Framers called the “dictates of conscience.”

If — in the best tradition of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson — it is at all possible to accommodate this family's beliefs and still to give Aaron a good education, then we should make every effort to do so.

This story ends well for the First Amendment and for Aaron. His response to the settlement was simply: “I am so happy to go back to school.” He doesn't seem to mind that his religious beliefs make him a little “different” from others; he's just thrilled to be back with the friends and teachers he loves.

Aaron's experience may strike you as a small incident, hardly worth the months of legal struggle. But as Madison warned more than 200 years ago, “it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.”

If today we allow the state to override Aaron's claim of conscience (however odd we may find it), then tomorrow the state may choose to ignore ours too.