A legal firm has come to the defense of a Texas teenager who was allegedly slammed face-first to the ground repeatedly by a cop after he refused to remove his rosary beads.
Jacob Herrera’s older brother passed away in 2012. His mother says that he left Jacob with a rosary for him to wear for protection.
“Jacob believes that that rosary protects him and it's of his remembrance to his brother,” Herrera’s mother explained to a local CBS affiliate.
While rosary beads are known to be a religious symbol, they have also come to be associated with gangs. For that reason, the Amarillo Independent School District has asked students to refrain from wearing any religious symbols on school grounds.
On Oct. 29, during a school football game, a police officer asked Herrera to remove his rosary beads. When Herrera refused, one eyewitness reported that the officer used excessive force on the eighth grade student.
“He handcuffed him and then crossed him across the street right there and slammed him again and he repeatedly slammed the child on the floor,” Marivell Chavez told KFDA-TV. Chavez added that he heard Herrera yell, “I can’t breathe,” and, “Call my mom,” while being restrained.
The Amarillo Police Department gave their account of the events that transpired, saying that Herrera was resisting arrest, which ultimately led to an escalation with authorities.
The school issued a statement on the matter: “A school administrator and liaison officer asked the student to either comply with the dress code rules or leave school property. The student repeatedly refused to comply with either option. At that time, the student was arrested for trespassing.”
Rutherford Institute, a legal firm that specializes in the defense of civil liberties, has come to the aid of Herrera after the incident. John Whitehead, the firm’s founder, told the Christian Post that he believes the police officer used excessive force against Herrera and that the school district is infringing on religious freedom.
“I understand that this (could be seen as) a gang symbol, but you can’t repress the symbol,” Whitehead said in a Monday interview with the Christian Post. “It is a matter of religious freedom and is a First Amendment right.
“I think that they are overreacting to the gang issues, and if you have somebody wearing it legitimately, yes, they should be allowed to wear it.”
Whitehead said that they are giving the school district until Friday to respond to their request to change its dress code policy and to urge police to drop criminal prosecution on Herrera. They are also calling for the district to condemn the actions of the police officer who forcibly restrained him.
“I can see concern over gang symbols, but when you are lumping rosary beads in there with it and Christian symbols, you got a problem,” Whitehead added. “Then, when you have the cops slamming somebody face-down, and he had to go to the hospital over it, an eighth grader, holding in detention like is a master criminal, just doesn’t make any sense to me."