(CN) – A Texas school district can’t require an American Indian boy to wear his long hair in a bun or in a single braid tucked into his shirt, the 5th Circuit ruled, because the grooming policy “offends a sincere religious belief.”
Before the boy’s parents moved to Needville, Texas, they emailed the Needville Independent School District about its grooming policy, which states that boys’ hair “shall not cover any part of the ear or touch the top of the standard collar in back.”
The boy’s father, Kenney Arocha, claimed the policy violated their family’s beliefs as members of the Liban Apache Tribe. Long hair is “a symbol, an outward extension of who we are and where we come from, our ancestry and where we’re going in life,” and a “constant reminder to us of who we are,” according to Arocha.
Arocha last cut his hair about 10 or 11 years ago, refusing to cut his braids during brain surgery and despite the threat of losing a job. His son, “A.A.,” then 5 years old and headed into kindergarten, had never had his hair cut.
The family explained that hair was not to be cut except after life-changing events, such as the death of a loved one.
But the school’s principal insisted that “long hair is not allowed” on boys. When the parents objected, district superintendent Curtis Rhodes asked for proof of the family’s religious beliefs.
The boy’s parents explained that their beliefs were passed down orally, but offered DNA evidence that Arocha is of American Indian descent.
Rhodes declined to make an exception, and the family’s appeal drew local media attention. The Houston Press quoted Rhodes as saying, “We’re not going to succumb to everything and just wash away our policies and procedures. … If you want to think we’re backwards … no one is asking you to move to Needville and have these opinions invoked on you.”
Before the school board decided the appeal, Rhodes met privately with the family and learned that Arocha had refused to cut his hair during a month-long stay in the hospital for brain surgery.
This apparently convinced him that Arocha’s beliefs were sincere. But instead of granting an exemption, Rhodes offered to let the boy wear his hair in a bun or in a single “tightly woven” braid tucked behind his collar.
The board adopted Rhodes’ suggestion, but Arocha and his wife rejected it and sent their son to school wearing two long braids. He received in-school suspension for not complying with the grooming policy, and his parents sued.
A federal judge ruled for the family and barred the school district from applying its grooming policy to the kindergartener.
The New Orleans-based federal appeals court agreed, saying the policy is meant “to instill discipline and to teach respect for authority.”
“These goals are legitimate, but they are not served by applying the district’s hair regulation to A.A.,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote. “That legitimacy accepts that the wearing of long hair … by most boys may be seen as an act of defiance — and a rejection of authority. Well and good, but A.A.’s long hair is conceded to be an exercise, not of rebellion, but of adherence to religious belief.”
The court noted that the district allows girls to wear their hair long, undermining its purported interests in preventing accidents, increasing hygiene and “fostering a uniform appearance.”
In a dissenting opinion, Judge E. Grady Jolly argued that the “off-the-collar” options did not unconstitutionally burden the boy’s religious beliefs.