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Battle over religious symbols in schools

Published on -6/19/2012, 9:02 AM

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When Jake Balthazor was sent to the office by his teacher earlier this month, imagine his surprise.

After all, Jake hadn't disrupted class, failed to do his homework or committed any other offense that might lead to disciplinary action at Coon Rapids High School near Minneapolis.

The problem, it turned out, wasn't with what the 15-year-old was doing, but with the black-and-silver rosary beads he was wearing. (Rosary beads are used by many Roman Catholics to offer prayers to the Virgin Mary.)

What Jake sees as a religious symbol worn to honor his sick grandmother, the school district views as a possible gang symbol that could threaten school safety.

Rosaries were added to the list of prohibited symbols in Coon Rapids after the school district reportedly received a memo from the local police department in May saying some gangs in the area used rosary beads as a symbol of affiliation. Although no rosary-bead gang was disrupting the school, administrators decided to make a pre-emptive strike.

Coon Rapids school officials aren't alone in their determination to censor rosaries and other symbols to counter gangs. Many school districts now have broad bans on head coverings, clothing, jewelry and other objects that might in some way be connected to gang membership. Rosary beads are often on the list.

Much to the dismay of school administrators, religious students are pushing back. Last year, 14-year-old Jonae Devlin sought legal help after she was suspended by her Houston school district for wearing a rosary in memory of her grandmother. Two years ago in Schenectady, N.Y., 13-year-old Raymond Hosier's family filed suit after being told Raymond couldn't wear rosary beads to honor his older brother, who had died in an accident.

The Catholic rosary isn't the only religious symbol caught in the wide safety net cast by public school anti-gang efforts. In 1999, for example, a Mississippi school district barred Ryan Green, a Jewish 11th-grader, from wearing the Star of David. In 2003, an Oklahoma school district suspended sixth-grader Nashala Hern for wearing her hijab, a head scarf she wore to observe her faith.

After calling in lawyers, all of these students eventually won the right to wear symbols of their religion to school. It's likely that Jake also will prevail should his family challenge the rosary ban in Coon Rapids.

Students win these cases because the U.S. Supreme Court famously recognized in 1969 that students "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate" (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District).

According to the court, school officials may censor student religious and political expression only if they can demonstrate or reasonably forecast that the expression will cause a substantial disruption of school.

The court recognized the important interest schools have in ensuring safety. But as Tinker made clear, "undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance" is not sufficient grounds to deny students their First Amendment rights.

It goes without saying that administrators can and should act to keep gang activity out of schools.

But sweeping prohibitions on religious head coverings, rosary beads and other religious symbols in the name of school safety is wrongheaded and unconstitutional -- without strong evidence that wearing a particular symbol has caused or is very likely to cause a substantial disruption.

After a school district in Nebraska told 12-year-old Elizabeth Carey last fall that she could no longer wear a necklace that resembles a rosary, a spokesman for the Omaha Catholic Archdiocese summarized the confusion and outrage felt by many parents and students.

"I don't think Christians should have to forfeit what is the symbol of love of Christ because a few people want to misuse that symbol," Rev. Joseph Taphorn told the press. "One ought to be able to figure out whether she's trying to promote a gang," he added. "If she's not, why would she be punished for her right of religious freedom and religious expression?"

Amen to that.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Washington-based Newseum. chaynes@freedomforum.org

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