Students should be free to wear rosary beads

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

News reports say school officials at Collinsville (Ill.) High School suspended sophomore student Rodrigo Avila for wearing rosary beads to school. Such acts of censorship are not unusual in public schools across the country, as school officials often claim that the beads are a gang symbol. In response, students reply that wearing rosary beads is a protected act of free speech and an exercise of their religious liberties.


Last year, Oneida Middle School in Schenectady, N.Y., did the same thing to middle school student Raymond Hosier, who eventually earned a settlement from school officials.


In the 1990s, school officials in New Caney, Texas, prohibited high school students David Chalifoux and Jerry Robertson from wearing rosaries to school — using the same gang-related symbol rationale. The two students sued in federal court on First Amendment grounds and prevailed. In Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District (1997), U.S. District Judge David Hittner wrote that “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 its schools.”


School officials should focus on punishing students who may be affiliated with gangs, rather than those who wear beads for legitimate personal and religious reasons. In the absence of a showing that rosary beads are causing a substantial disruption of school activities, students should have a First Amendment right to wear them under the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal student-speech precedent, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).


The Tinker substantial-disruption standard allows school officials some flexibility if they can show that the beads are causing real problems. But the Court in Tinker also warned that “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right of freedom of expression.”


Just as the student litigants in Tinker had a First Amendment right to wear black peace armbands, students like Rodrigo Avila, Raymond Hosier, David Chalifoux and others should have the right to wear rosary beads.


School officials do have a compelling interest in providing a safe learning environment and preventing the influence of gangs. But shouldn’t school officials have some individualized suspicion before prohibiting students from engaging in peaceful expression.


All students shouldn’t have to suffer because a few may belong to gangs. Punish the wrongdoers without censoring the legitimate expression of others. Otherwise, students will grow up in an environment of “undifferentiated fear” that swallows First Amendment freedoms.


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