ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – A Schenectady public school suspended a boy from seventh grade for wearing a rosary, because the school considers beaded jewelry “gang-related,” the boy’s family claims in Federal Court. The boy wore the rosary in memory of his brother, who held it and prayed over it “as he lay dying in the intensive care unit in 2005.”
The suspended boy’s mother, Chantell Hosier, says her son has worn the rosary – with pale purple beads and a white crucifix – on every school day since September 2009, in memory of his late family members and to express his faith.
“The same rosary hung around his brother’s hand as he lay dying in the intensive care unit in 2005,” his mom says. “His uncle died within the past month from brain cancer. His uncle prayed the rosary during his life and taught R.H. about the rosary.”
But officials at Oneida Middle School called the rosary gang-related and sent the boy, R.H., home from school. He returned to school the next day wearing the rosary and was not punished, but the principal suspended him through May 21 when he wore the rosary on the third day, according to the complaint.
The superintendent’s office refused to get involved, the mother says.
“Superintendent Eric Ely supports the application of the student dress code to R.H,” according to the complaint. “Even though R.H. wears a rosary for religious reasons, defendant Ely has stated publicly that ‘beads are beads’ and cannot be displayed in school.”
The boy was suspended again when he wore the rosary again on the Monday after his first suspension.
The mom says the school’s dress code is overbroad and unconstitutional.
“Defendants’ student dress code policy, which provides that ‘A student’s dress, grooming and appearance, including hair, jewelry, make-up and nails, shall … [n]ot denote, represent or be deemed to be gang related, included but not limited to bandanas, colors, flags or beads,’ is impermissibly vague and unconstitutional on its face and as applied to R.H. by defendants,” according to the complaint.
“R.H. is not a member of any criminal gang. R.H. does not wear his rosary to advocate or promote gang membership or violence. During this past school year, R.H. has not caused any disruption to the school environment while he has passively worn his rosary on the outside of his shirt.”
The family sued the Schenectady City School District, Ely, Assistant Superintendent William Roberts, school dean Mark Brooks, principal Karmen McEvoy and assistant principal Lee Satterlee.
They seek declaratory and injunctive relief. They are represented by Edward White III of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Raymond Dague of Syracuse, N.Y.