CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) — Long-haired players are commonplace in pro and college football, but a Texas school district won’t let a student play with the sacred braid he’s been growing since birth. A federal judge Thursday allowed his family’s religious discrimination lawsuit to proceed.
“All it takes is a quick snip of the scissors for you to get your football equipment,” coaches at Mathis Independent School District told Pedro and Belen Gonzales’ now 14-year-old son, C.G., in August 2017, according to their amended lawsuit.
Mathis, population 5,000, is 40 miles northwest of Corpus Christi.
C.G. and his younger brother D.G. testified that they believe cutting their braids would be a sin and would break a promise their parents made to God when they were newborns.
C.G. testified that he was a sickly child, but his health improved after his parents made the promise.
“Now, he considers the promise to be his to keep as well as theirs and if he cut the hair, he would disappoint Jesus or get punished. But if his parents took back the promise, he would cut his hair and play football,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote in her Thursday ruling.
Though the Gonzaleses acknowledge the custom has nothing to do with their Roman Catholic faith, they have given the school district verified proof it’s part of their religious practices since August 2010, when they enrolled C.G. in kindergarten.
School officials did not restrict the boys from any extracurricular activities for years, until August 2017 when they told C.G. he could not play football with his long hair, according to the family’s amended complaint, filed in March this year.
The parents filed two grievances asking for a religious exemption to the school’s dress code.
For boys, the dress code 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. Additionally boys’ hair may not exceed the top of the ear. Hair may not be pinned, curled, or gelled up to avoid this rule.”
After multiple conferences with the superintendent in fall 2017, in which the couple said the district was violating their children’s constitutional right to freedom of religion and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the district doubled down.
It sent the parents 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’s attorney Frank Gonzales told Courthouse News the school district’s treatment of C.G. and D.G., both eighth-graders, has traumatized them.
“These children both desire to participate in their respective activities with such passion that both have been to the point of tears on multiple occasions,” he said in an email.
Judge Gonzales Ramos on Thursday dismissed the family’s First Amendment Free Exercise claim.
She said the grooming policy does not place an undue First Amendment burden on them because it is within the district’s “general jurisdiction to regulate its school image and is applied neutrally to all students.”
But the family’s 14th Amendment due process and Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act claims survived the school district’s motion for summary judgment.
Gonzales Ramos, a President Barack Obama appointee, found the district may have violated the Gonzales’s due process right to guide their children’s moral and religious training.
And the judge said the district had not done enough to overcome the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s standard of strict scrutiny — the most stringent level of judicial review.
The district argued the case is not about its grooming policy encroaching on religious freedom, it turns on the boys’ participation in University Interscholastic League events, and that inclusion in those events is not a constitutionally protected right.
However, Gonzales Ramos found that argument works against the district.
“If UIL participation is so inconsequential, one can ask why MISD persists in enforcing its highest level of grooming (at the expense of plaintiffs’ fundamental religious rights) as a condition for participation,” she wrote in a 19-page order.
She said the district failed to clear the hurdle of strict scrutiny because it has not proved its grooming policy addresses a compelling state interest, and is the least restrictive means of doing so.
“The only argument that seeps through from MISD’s briefing of the other claims is that the grooming policy represents the district’s community values that boys and girls should sport gender-appropriate appearances. …
“While the grooming policy has been in place for decades, one might conclude just as easily that it is antiquated as that it is time-honored,” she wrote.
The school district’s attorney Dennis Eichelbaum said he’s pleased Gonzales Ramos dismissed the First Amendment claims, and he appreciates that she was specific in her concerns about its compliance with state law.
Asked if he thinks the district will now consider changing its policy and letting C.G. play football, he said, “First of all, football season is over and there’s a long time before football season begins again. And this case could take several turns between now and then.”
“Second of all, I’m not sure I understand why football is the be-all and end-all for anyone when they’re getting a good education, and that’s the main purpose of school,” Eichelbaum added.
He is a partner in the firm Eichelbaum Wardell Hansen Powell & Mehl.
The family’s attorney said he doesn’t believe the grooming rules will hold up against strict scrutiny because district officials “only recently put forth any basis for their policy.”
“On the contrary, my clients’ sincerely held religious beliefs have been in place for their entire lives, and said beliefs have been recognized by the district on multiple occasions that go back as far as eight years,” he said.
In a somewhat similar recent case in New Jersey, a white wrestling referee ordered a black student to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match. The student cut them off, setting off a furor from civil rights advocates.