Religion in Society

Court: Native American Student Adriel Arocha Can Have Long Hair

| by AUSCS

Watchdog Group Had Filed Court Brief In Texas Case To Support Religious Freedom

A federal appeals court was right to rule that a Native American student in Texas may wear his hair long for religious reasons, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday in favor of Adriel Arocha, an elementary school student. Arocha and his family had challenged a grooming policy at the Needville Independent School District that bans long hair for male students.

“This boy wants to follow the teachings of his faith while attending school, and he should be able to do so,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Public schools must never sponsor religious activities, but at the same time, they are obligated to allow voluntary student religious expression that doesn’t interfere with the rights of others.”

The Needville school district’s policy does not allow boys to wear their hair past their collars or over their eyes. School officials met with Adriel’s family but refused to grant them a religiously based exemption to the policy.

The appeals court agreed with the family. In a 2-1 ruling, it held that the school’s policy violates the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a state law ensuring religious liberty.

“As the district court found, [Adriel] has already recognized that he has been treated differently because of his hair,” the court held. “And, given that [Adriel] understands that his hair is part of the practice and expression of his Native American beliefs, the obvious lesson is that he is being treated differently because of his religion. This recognition risks feelings of shame and resentment, a risk that, while real now, will continue to grow.”

Americans United and the Anti-Defamation League filed a friend-of-the-court brief in A.A. v. Needville Independent School District, urging the court to rule in the boy’s favor. The brief was drafted by attorneys David Gossett and Maria Glover of the Mayer Brown law firm with input from AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee.