Religious Beliefs Won’t Topple Student Trackers

     SAN ANTONIO (CN) – A federal judge refused to halt controversial pilot program that lets a school district track magnet school students with chip-embedded identification badges.
     Steve Hernandez challenged the policy at Northside Independent School District individually and on behalf of his 15-year-old daughter Andrea, described in the lawsuit as an “exemplary” and academically gifted student at John Jay High School and John Jay Science and Engineering Academy.
     When Andrea said wearing the badge conflicted with her religious beliefs, Northside allegedly withdrew her from the magnet school and transferring her back to her “home” school that does not participate in the pilot program, according to the November 2012 complaint.
     A Bexar County judge gave Hernandez a temporary restraining order and removed the suit to federal court on Nov. 27.
     U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia refused to enter a preliminary injunction this month.
     Northside has said it will remove the chip from Andrea’s badge as a religious accommodation under the First Amendment, according to the 25-page order.
     “The record clearly reflects that Mr. Hernandez has been pushing for dissolution of the entire NISD pilot program, but he clarified at the [grievance] hearing that he is ‘asking for religious accommodation’ for [Andrea] only,” Garcia wrote. “As Mr. Hernandez testified at the hearing, the ‘tracking chip’ is the source of their objection because he believes it emits a signal that tracks his daughter’s every move. He testified that removal of the chip ‘would remove his concern to a certain extent.’ The District has repeatedly offered to remove the chip from [Andrea’s] badge as an accommodation, and plaintiff has refused the accommodation.”
     Hernandez believes that the chip is “the mark of the beast” under the book of Revelation, testifying that the “Antichrist wants to control every move,” according to the ruling.
     He also claims that the tracking chip in the badge “tracks the children’s every move in school,” the court said.
     Garcia could not find evidence, however, that carrying the chip imposes a substantial burden on Andrea’s ability to exercise her religion.
     Andrea has always carried a badge of some sort, and she is not being compelled to do anything different now, according to the ruling.
     “Plaintiff can continue to disagree with the Smart ID pilot program and she can continue to exercise her religious beliefs even if she carries a Smart ID badge during school hours,” Garcia wrote. “Even if plaintiff could show a substantial burden, the District has a compelling governmental interest that outweighs such burden. In today’s climate, one would be hard pressed to argue that the safety and security of the children and educators in our public school system is not a compelling governmental interest. Mandatory identification badges issued to all students, staff, and visitors further the school’s interest in providing a safe and secure environment for everyone on campus.”
     An offer to remove the chip from Andrea’s badge or transfer to her “home” campus as accommodation extinguishes the claim under the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, according to the ruling.
     Garcia also rejected unpersuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that the transfer option is a violation of her due process rights.
     “At this juncture, Plaintiff still has a choice,” he wrote. “If she wants to remain on the Jay H.S. campus, she will need to wear the student ID badge issued for that campus. If she does not want to wear the badge issued for that campus, the district has the discretion to transfer plaintiff back to the Taft H.S. campus where she can wear her old student ID badge. As Superintendent Woods testified, the core curriculum and many of the electives are the same, and no disciplinary mark would be reflected on plaintiff’s student record.”
     Hernandez said the religious objections stems from the book of Revelation.
     “According to these scriptures, an individual’s acceptance of a certain code, identified with his or her person, as a pass conferring certain privileges from a secular ruling authority, is a form of idolatry or submission to a false god,” the complaint stated. “Plaintiff was offered an ‘accommodation’ whereby the radio chip would be removed from the plaintiff’s badge. Under this ‘accommodation,’ however, plaintiff would still be required to wear the badge around her neck as an outward symbol of her ‘participation’ in the project.”
     Hernandez said school officials also banned Andrea from distributing flyers and petitions to other students at the school that argued against the program.
     Located in San Antonio, Northside is the fourth-largest school district in Texas, covering 355 square miles and 100,000 students. The district operates 72 elementary schools, 20 middle schools, 15 high schools and nine alternative schools.

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