RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) - A federal judge temporarily barred a public school from sending a member of the Church of Body Modification to an "alternative" high school because she wears a nose ring.
U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard granted a temporary restraining order allowing Ariana Iacono to return to class after Clayton High School administrators refused to grant her a religious exemption to the school's dress code.
Judge Howard found that Iacono and her mother, Nikki, "have shown a likelihood of success" on their claim that the Johnston County Board of Education's prohibition of nose rings violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
Iacono sued the school district, its superintendent and administrators of Clayton High School. She claims the school transfer indicates governmental endorsement of orthodox religions over lesser-known, but well-established unorthodox religion. Iacono says her church has about 3,500 members in the United States.
"Members of the Church practice ancient and modern body modification rites, and believe these practices are essential to their spirituality," according to the complaint.
The mom says her 14-year-old daughter missed 19 of the first 28 days of her high school education and has effectively been banished to an "alternative" school for misfits. The transfer also interfered with her right to direct the religious and educational upbringing of her child, Iacono claims.
The mom says her daughter has been a model student throughout her academic career. She maintained a 93 average during all three years in middle school and received numerous academic awards, including a $2,000 scholarship to attend a National Science Camp for high-achieving students.
Upon entry, Clayton High School placed her in an honors science course, based on the recommendation of a middle school science teacher. But everything changed when Ariana asked an assistant principal for directions to a classroom in her new school, the mother says.
The assistant principal, defendant Andrea Andino, "noticed that Ariana was wearing a stud in her nose, and advised Ariana that she was not allowed to wear the stud at school," the complaint states. "Ms. Andino threatened Ariana with an assignment to in-school suspension if she refused to remove the nose stud on that day."
When Ariana said she could not remove it for fear of infection, Andino let her keep it in that day, her mom says. The next day, Iacono says she met with the principal, defendant Clint Eaves, "and explained the religious significance of Ariana's nose stud. Mr. Eaves informed Ms. Iacono that he would conduct an investigation into the church to determine whether Ariana would be exempted from the dress code.
"During this meeting, Mr. Eaves told Ms. Iacono that Ariana's nose stud 'would be treated differently if you were Muslims or Hindus.'
"Ms. Iacono provided the Church's website as well as contact information for [their minister] Reverend Ivey, to Mr. Eaves.
"Ariana was allowed to wear her nose stud at school during Mr. Eaves' investigation into the religious practices of the church."
The Church of Body Modification was incorporated in Pennsylvania in July 2008, according to the complaint. The church teaches that through body modification, followers strengthen the connection between their minds, bodies and souls. In doing so, the followers live as "spiritually complete and healthy individuals."
The mission statement of the church requires that members vow to "share [their] experiences openly and honestly in order to promote growth in mind, body and soul." The statement also requires members to "share a positive message with everyone [they] encounter, in order to act as positive rile models for future generations in the body modification community," the complaint states.
When she joined the church, Ariana Iacono pierced her nose and now wears a small peridot stud in the left side of her nose. The church requires that she wear her nose stud at all times.