Officials at a Texas public school have no right to force a Native American elementary school student to cut his hair, which he wears long for religious reasons, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United today filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting student Adriel Arocha and his family. The family is challenging a grooming policy at the Needville Independent School District that bans long hair for male students.

“Public schools must never sponsor prayer or other religious activities,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “At the same time, they have an obligation to allow voluntary student religious expression that doesn’t interfere with the rights of others.

“Adriel’s decision to wear his hair long for religious reasons is a private expression of faith, and the school should respect that,” Lynn continued.

Needville’s policy does not allow boys to wear their hair past the collar or over the eyes. The Houston Chronicle reported last year that many rural school districts in Texas have similar rules.

Needville school officials met with Adriel’s family but refused to grant them a religious exemption to the policy. School officials did say Adriel could stuff his hair into his shirt, but the family said that was not enough.

A federal district court ruled in the family’s favor in January, but the school district has appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Americans United, which is joined on the brief by the Anti-Defamation League, is asking the 5th Circuit to uphold the lower court’s decision. The family is being represented by the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Public school students have the right to engage in religious activities as long as they are not disruptive and don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights,” said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director of Americans United. “Adriel’s decision to wear long hair easily meets both of those tests.”

The case is A.A. v. Needville Independent School District.