Friday, January 23, 2009

Court Upholds Native American School Child's Hair Length Claim

In A.A. v. Needville Independent School District, (SD TX, Jan. 20, 2009), a Texas federal district court granted a permanent injunction preventing Needville (TX) Elementary School officials from enforcing the school district's hair style policy against a 5-year old whose family taught him to wear his hair in two long braids in the tradition of Native American religions. The school board was only willing to accommodate the request by allowing the boy to wear his hair in a single braid, tucked into the back of his shirt.

The court first determined that plaintiffs have sincerely held religious beliefs that their hair should be worn long and concluded that the school's policy significantly burdens those beliefs. However the court upheld the school's requirement that a new application for exemption from the hair style policy be filed each year. Finding that the exemption policy is not a neutral rule of general applicability, the court subjected it to strict scrutiny. It concluded that the policy violated plaintiff's free exercise, free expression and due process rights as well as the Texas Religious Freedom Act. Yesterday's Houston Chronicle reports on the decision. (See prior related posting.) [Thanks to Eric Rassbach and Matthew Caplan for the lead.]