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Report: Texas Schools Continue to Violate First Amendment Rights

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Kenney Arocha and his son, Adriel, who successfully argued in 2009 for a religious exemption from the Needville school district dress code because Adriel's braids were an expression of his Native American faith. Courtesy ACLU of Texas.

Kenney Arocha and his son, Adriel, who successfully argued in 2009 for a religious exemption from the Needville school district dress code because Adriel's braids were an expression of his Native American faith. Courtesy ACLU of Texas.


September 12, 2012

HOUSTON - Twelve years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a landmark Texas religious-freedom case, a new report concludes that a surprising number of Texas school personnel continue to ignore long-settled law.

The report by ACLU of Texas examines the current state of public school compliance with the First Amendment.

Of the hundreds of school-related complaints her office fields each year, says Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for ACLU of Texas, most concern students feeling pressured or uncomfortable.

"Students are denied the right to wear their rosary to school, or to wear their hair in a way that their religious beliefs require. We get a lot of complaints about teachers speaking about their own personal religious beliefs, leading kids in prayer."

She says it's unconstitutional for public schools to refuse to accommodate students' religious beliefs unless there are compelling reasons such as when discipline is at stake. She says students also should not be pressured into attending events at faith-based facilities.

Too many people assume that the majority always should prevail, Robertson says. In 2000, after administrators in Santa Fe, Texas, allowed students to vote on whether to allow public prayers at football games, the Supreme Court struck down the practice. Robertson praises that ruling because, she says, the freedom to worship - as well as freedom from worship - are fundamental rights.

"That's never subject to a majority vote. Every one of us really relies on that guarantee that - even if we're in the minority, even if those in power disagree with us - we are absolutely protected in our religious beliefs."

The report says Texas families who have spoken out against religion in school have experienced retaliation - from physical attacks and property attacks to lost jobs and social rejection. Intimidation often silences would-be critics, Robertson says, adding that too many officials still are allowing school practices in clear violation of the law.

"In general, the Constitution and our Texas laws go a long way to say that kids and parents have the right to worship as they wish, or not; to exercise their religion freely in schools - and schools need to create an atmosphere that tolerates that."

She says her organization receives the most school complaints during the fall football season and around spring graduation.

The report, along with tips for dealing with rights violations, is online at aclutx.org.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX