Nose Rings And Religious Freedom

October 13, 2010

The ACLU is suing to defend a student’s right to wear a nose ring to school on religious freedom grounds. Fourteen year old Ariana Iacono was suspended from Clayton High School on four occasions for wearing a nose ring. Ms. Iacono and her mother claim that she wears the nose ring in accordance with her religious beliefs. They are members of the Church of Body Modification. I visited the church’s website (not for the squeamish) and realized that a nose ring is a minor “body modification” by standards of this church.

According to this Yahoo news post, “The Johnston County school system has a dress code banning facial piercings, along with short skirts, sagging pants, “abnormal hair color” and other items deemed distracting or disruptive.”

School boards have typically been given latitude in regulating dress codes and student appearance. See my post from last year about a four-year old boy from Texas who was suspended because his hair was too long.

This case is different. According to her lawyers, Ms. Iacono’s argument is about “a family’s right to send a 14-year-old honor student to public school without her being forced to renounce her family’s religious beliefs…”

The school board is on shaky constitutional ground here. Their own dress code allows for exceptions based on “”sincerely held religious belief…”  The code also instructs school officials not to “attempt to determine whether the religious beliefs are valid, but only whether they are central to religious doctrine and sincerely held.”

The Supreme Court addressed student dress codes more than forty years ago, in Tinker v. Des Moines. The court held that “restrictions on protected speech cannot be justified unless there is a “showing that students’ activities would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

The court has slowly eroded the power of Tinker. Read this post from Blogging Censorship for a good overview of current case-law.

In this case Ms. Iacono seems to have a strong argument, based on the religious rituals espoused by her church and the school district’s own guidelines.

If she’s successful, the Church of Body Modification may enjoy a huge increase in high school age parishioners.

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