Court Backs American Indian Student’s Long Hair

By Mark Walsh — July 11, 2010 2 min read
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A Texas school district violated the religious rights of an American Indian student when it sought to restrict how he wore his long, braided hair, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Needville Independent School District near Houston has a dress code requiring boys to keep their hair short, not touching their ears or the tops of their shirt collars.

Michelle Betenbaugh and Kenney Arocha, the parents of an elementary school student identified in court papers as A.A., sought permission from the district beginning in 2007 to allow the boy to keep his hair in two long braids. The father and son, who are members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, contend that wearing long hair is part of a sincere religious belief and symbolizes their ancestry and their length of life, according to court papers.

After much back and forth over the family’s request for an exemption to the dress code, the school district offered to let A.A. wear his hair in a bun over his head or in a single braid tucked inside his shirt while in school. The family rejected the idea and sued the district under the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The state law bars any government agency in Texas from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s free exercise of religion” unless it “demonstrates that the application of the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

A federal district court ruled for the family under the Texas law, and in a 2-1 decision on July 9, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, did as well.

U.S. Circuit Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham, in the majority opinion in A.A. v. Needville Independent School District, said the school district’s restrictions would represent a “significant” burden on the boy’s religious beliefs.

A.A. “has a sincere religious belief in wearing his hair uncut and in plain view,” Judge Higginbotham wrote. “That belief is substantially burdened by the district’s grooming policy—even with the district’s proffered exemptions; and the district has put forth insufficient justification for its persistence in this matter.”

In dissent, Judge E. Grady Jolly said the majority confused A.A.'s right to keep the length of his hair with the right to keep it visible.

“Clearly, none of the other ‘off the collar’ options proposed by the school district impose a substantial burden on A.A’s belief that he should not cut his hair,” Judge Jolly wrote.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.