CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – A Texas teenager who was booted from his school’s science team because the school district said a sacred braid he’s been growing since infancy violates its dress code won an injunction Thursday allowing him to participate in extracurricular activities.
With their newborn son Cesar sick with a potentially fatal bacterial meningitis infection, Belen and Pedro Gonzales turned to their Catholic faith, the family says in a motion for preliminary injunction.
They promised God if he would bless Cesar with strength to pull through his illness they would let a lock of his hair grow. After they made this “promesa,” the now 14-year-old Cesar’s infection cleared up.
The Gonzaleses soon became pregnant with another son, Diego, and pledged to God they would also leave a lock of his hair growing if he was blessed with good health and his mother with a complications-free pregnancy, the couple says in court filings.
Belen and Pedro told their sons about the promesa when they reached sixth grade and the boys made a pact to honor it.
The parents say when they enrolled Cesar in kindergarten in the Mathis Independent School District in 2010, they gave the district verified proof his hair is part of their religious practices. Mathis, population 5,000, is 40 miles northwest of Corpus Christi.
They said the district did not have a problem until 2017 when school officials told Cesar he could not play football with his long hair, and they handed Diego a letter in a science team meeting, telling him he could no longer participate because of his braid.
School administrators said they were in violation of the dress code, which for boys states, “Hair must be cut as not to touch the eyebrows in front or extend beyond the top of the collar of a standard shirt in back.”
The school district did not budge and dug in after the Gonzaleses met with the superintendent multiple times in fall 2017.
It sent the family a letter in December 2017 stating it was barring the boys from participating in any University Interscholastic League activities. The UIL is the governing body for athletic, musical and academic competitions for Texas grade school students.
The family filed a federal lawsuit in January 2018, claiming the district was violating their children’s constitutional right to freedom of religion and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
With the boys now both freshmen at Mathis High School, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos granted Diego a preliminary injunction Thursday, ordering the district to let him participate in extracurricular activities.
Gonzales Ramos, a Barack Obama appointee, ordered the parties to provide more evidence of when exactly the district notified Cesar he could not play football due to his braid before she decides whether to extend the preliminary injunction to him.
The family is represented by Jamie Aycock with the Houston office of Kirkland Ellis and Corpus Christi attorney Frank Gonzales.
Aycock argued in an Aug. 26 motion for preliminary injunction the district cannot justify infringing on the boys’ freedom of religion.
“MISD’s only asserted justifications, an interest in aesthetic homogeneity and a concern that exemptions will beget requests for additional exemptions, have been explicitly rejected by the courts in similar circumstances,” Aycock wrote.
“And the fact that the boys render their braids hardly noticeable by tucking them into their shirts makes clear that MISD’s condition that they sever their religious braids to participate is inexplicable,” he added.
Gonzales Ramos gave the parties until Sept. 10 to file briefs on Cesar’s request for a preliminary injunction. If Cesar prevails, he may be able to join Mathis High’s football team for their first league game against Falfurrias High School on Sept. 27.