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RELIGIOUS CLOTHING & JEWELRY IN SCHOOL

NEWS EVENTS: 1998 to 1999

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Recent Cases of friction over clothing and jewelry:

bullet1998; Colorado: Two African-American students at Arvada High School in Lakewood CO wanted to express pride in their African heritage by wearing a ceremonial Ghanian Kente cloth over their graduation gowns. The school administrated would not allow them to be worn. The ACLU applied to the courts for an preliminary injunction to overrule the school's decision. The federal district court ruled that the 1st Amendment guarantee of the students' freedom of expression conflicted with the message of unity that the graduation ceremony was intended to display. He denied their request for an injunction.
bullet1998-OCT; Michigan: The Lincoln Park High School in a suburb of Detroit had issued a dress code to be followed by all students. 2,3 It prohibited the wearing of clothing or jewelry associated with white supremacy groups, youth gangs, Satanism and "Wigga" [sic]. The writers of the dress code probably meant "Wicca," This included the wearing of pentagrams (a 5 pointed star) and pentacles (a pentagram inside a circle). These are the prime religious symbol of Wiccans. The school has no objections to the wearing of analogous symbols of other religions: the Star of David among Jews, the cross by Protestants, and the crucifix among Roman Catholics. Honor student Crystal Seifferly, 17, a Wiccan, complained. The OCRT (sponsors of this web site) and a number of Wiccan groups offered to supply information to the school authorities and to help mediate the dispute. Negotiations with the school board failed; the authorities refused to withdraw the prohibitions. As expected, they never bothered to even acknowledge receipt of our letter.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a law suit on the student's behalf. Her lawyer was Robert Sedlar, a professor from Wayne State University. During an 8 hour hearing in federal court on 1999-MAR-2, school principal Thomas Kilka testified that he was trying to stop a Satanic cult at the school when he issued the ban. He appeared to be unaware that the federal Equal Access law guarantees that students of all religions can organize a religious group in public schools. A mother of a 15 year old student testified that her daughter had joined a Satanic group and had experienced forced ritual sex, drinking blood, self-mutilation and devil worship. This was apparently either a number of nonexistent events based on hearsay, or activities by a group of teenage dabblers in Satanism. The alleged activities seem unrelated to religious Satanism. She appears to equate Paganism, Wicca and religious Satanism. She complained to the high school officials that she "wanted  somebody to put a stop to this Pagan and Witch stuff." Under questioning by the plaintiff's lawyer, the principal admitted that the Wiccan pentacle is different from the Satanic symbol. (The Wiccan symbol is a simple star with one point upwards. The Satanic Sigl of Baphomet is an inverted. It has one point downwards and typically has a goat's head inside the star.)

After the hearing, school superintendent Randall Kite said that they would remove the phrase "witches and pagans" from the list of prohibited groups. Edward Ortiz, a spokesperson of the Midwest Witches Anti-Discrimination League commented: "We understand the need to limit cults and gangs, but we don't see ourselves as part of those...We are a benevolent religion."

Another hearing was set for MAR-5. Ms. Seifferly was confident that the rule banning pentacles will be lifted at that time. She commented "This is a clear case of civil rights." She noted that the Tuesday hearing occurred on a full moon, an event that Wiccans associate with peak spiritual power.

A settlement was reached on MAR-22 and accepted by the U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen. The school agreed to:
bulletRemove the words Pagans and Witches from their policy,
bulletInclude an exception for students wearing "jewelry of other symbols in the profession of their religion."
bulletPay the ACLU attorney fees.
bulletRepublish the policy within 5 days.

Steve Foster, president of the Earth Religions Education League (formerly called WADL) said that his organization: "hopes that the settlement in this case will send a strong message to all other public school districts across the country that the religious expression of their students cannot be violated through the use of restrictive or repressive policies. The right to wear the symbol of one's faith does not cease to exist once one passes through the schoolhouse door." AREN Executive V.P. commented: "This is a victory, not only for Crystal Seifferly and for Witches and pagans, but for all religious minority students across the country. No one should have to prove the validity of their faith or be forced to hide it because it is different or non-mainstream. Religious belief speaks to the very spirit of American values and cannot be restricted by arbitrary policies that may inhibit its free expression.

The Detroit News had conducted a Cyber Survey which allowed readers to vote on whether they felt that pentacles should be banned in school. Results were 4 to 1 in favor of religious freedom. Such surveys are not particularly accurate, because the persons taking part are self-selected.

bullet1998-NOV; Rhode Island: The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island filed an appeal with the State Department of Education concerning a high school student who was suspended for wearing a T-shirt which displayed the name of a rock band and the number 666. In the book of Revelation in the Christian Scriptures, 666 is the number associated with the Anti-Christ. "The ACLU's complaint notes that the school district regularly allows students to wear T-shirts bearing other religious symbols or messages (such as "I will serve the Lord") without being punished."  John Dineen, a volunteer lawyer who filed the appeal, said: "Public schools cannot be in the business of approving a T-shirt about the Lord and banning a T-shirt of a rock band, even a sacrilegious one. In the process of trying to make schools safe, it's good to get rid of guns. It's not good to suspend common sense or the Bill of Rights." 1
bullet1999-MAY; Colorado: A second case arose at Alameda High School. It is located in the same country as Columbine High School where 14 students and one teacher were killed, and the two perpetrators committed suicide on 1999-APR-26. Many people in Colorado expressed their grief by wearing a small blue and silver ribbon.  Andrea Byrd and some fellow students wanted "to pin a blue-and-silver ribbon onto her graduation gown to show her respect for the families of the victims of the Columbine tragedy." Deborah Williams, principal of Almeda said, during a graduation rehersal, that students would not be allowed to wear such ribbons. After a fruitless attempt at negotiation, the ACLU asked the federal district court in Denver CO to issue an emergency temporary restraining order. Their request was based on both the 1st Amendment and  Article II, Section 10, of the Constitution of the State of Colorado. The latter provides even broader and more extensive protection of personal expression than does the U.S. Constitution. Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado, stated: "The ribbon quietly communicates Andrea's respect in a dignified and unobtrusive manner that is entirely consistent with the tone and format of the graduation ceremony. Wearing the ribbon cannot possibly take anything away from the graduation ceremony, nor does it pose any danger to any legitimate interest of the school." [We are attempting to determine the outcome of this request for an injunction]
bullet1999-JUL; Texas: Public school officials in McKinney, TX, installed a new dress code which bans the wearing of pentagrams and pentacles on campus. Some parents have expressed concerns that the new code is unnecessary. A local religious group has expressed concern that the policy violates some student's constitutional right of freedom of religion.
bullet1999-AUG; Mississipi: A 15 year old Jewish student, Ryan Green, was not allowed to wear a Star of David necklace at his Biloxi MS high school. This is a six-pointed star which is the universal symbol of Judaism. Ryan's father is Jewish and his mother is Christian. He was brought up in both faiths. During the summer holidays, his grandmother talked to him about his Jewish heritage and gave him a Star of David to wear.  He wore it to school, but was told to wear it inside his shirt for his own good. The next day, a teacher told him to take it off. The Harrison County school board voted unanimously on AUG-16 to back the teacher. They will retain their policy that forbids students from wearing anything that could be considered a gang symbol. The board discussed forbidding crosses and crucifixes, but decided to continue to allow Christian children to freely wear them. Tom Green, Ryan's father told the school board: "I don't appreciate calling the Star of David a gang symbol." The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit in the U.S. District Court in Biloxi, MS on AUG-19. 4

The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery AL maintains a large data base of U.S. hate groups. They only have one gang on record that uses a six pointed star; they are the Black Hebrew Israelites, a non-Jewish group. They are concentrated in New Mexico, New York and Florida. The Center is unaware of any presence by that gang in Biloxi, MS.

On 1999-AUG-19, there was an unusual show of unanimity by a prominent of religious leaders:
bulletJerry Falwell stated: "This is one more instance in America of hostility toward religion. The fact that this little boy is in a minority in that community should not cause him any consternation.
bulletRabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, commented: "It sounds like a clear-cut violation of religious liberty guidelines. One of those guidelines relates to student dress and says religious messages on T-shirts and the like may not be singled out for suppression." He also said: "It seems to me they are suppressing a particular religious symbol, which is the Star of David. If they say, 'Yes, you may wear symbols and you may wear religious symbols, but not Jewish symbols,' that on the face of it seems illegal, not to mention wrong.
bulletPat Robertson of the Christian Coalition stated: "Referring to the Star of David as a gang symbol is either ignorance or religious intolerance. The decision ... to suppress a heartfelt and legitimate public expression of faith is totally inappropriate.
bulletBill Bright, founder of the Campus Crusade for Christ, also supported the right of Ryan Green to wear his Star of David. 5

The school board reversed its decision in late 1999-AUG and allowed the wearing of the Jewish religious symbol.

bullet1999-SEP-7; New Mexico: The Roswell Independent School District has a dress code that states (in part): "...Any attire associated with gothic, satanic, or occult-type activities such as trench coats, knee high boots, all-black clothing, spiked jewelry, upside-down crosses, swastika, tattoos, pentagrams, etc... are prohibited.." School staff recommended that the ban on religious symbols be removed - specifically the prohibition on pentagrams. Legal staff from the city agreed that the ban was unconstitutional. Over 200 people attended the school board meeting. Steve Smothermon, pastor of Church On The Move commented: "I am here opposing your policy which you’ve enacted without a vote on the pentagram being allowed in schools. I would like to see a show of hands of those who oppose the pentagram and support our First Amendment rights." [Author's note: This comment seems a little confusing, because the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution guarantees religious freedom, which includes the wearing of religious jewelry.] Superintendent Amarante 
Fresquez asked for proof that Wicca is an acknowledged religion. Parents who objected to the ban provided him with proof in the form of:
bulletU.S. Army Chaplains' Handbook
bulletACLU historic documents, 
bulletGuidelines on Freedom of Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace (1997-AUG-14) 
bulletsome case histories, including:
bulletDettmer v. Landon, Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School. District, 876 F. Supp. 659 (SD Tex. 1997) 
bulletA court case involving the Lincoln Park High School and a student Crystal Seifferly.

The public presented their case during a three hour discussion. Their general belief was that the pentagram is a Satanic symbol and that the school board should keep Roswell a "Christian city," rather than a city in which religious freedom was tolerated. Veiled threats were allegedly made to both the Neopagan community and the school board . The board's vote was a 2-2 tie. This means that the existing policy will continue.  A local store owner, Kathyrn King, is described by the Roswell Daily Record as a "Pagan activist." She is reported as saying that she will ask the American Civil Liberties Union to mount a lawsuit against the school board. 6,7 For details on this case and its final resolution, see our essay on pentagrams

bullet1999-OCT-18; Alabama: Kandice Smith is in 6th grade at Curry Middle School in Jasper AL. She brought a lawsuit against the Walker County Public School System and her school's principal because she was allegedly told on two occasions to wear a gold cross out of sight inside her shirt. She was represented by the Fundamentalist Christian American Center for Law and Justice. A school district attorney, Russ Richardson, said that the policy's intent was to "keep distractions down" in the schools. The system's policy is that "No neck jewelry of any type is allowed, religious or otherwise." The school carefully regulates the allowable type, color and size of articles of clothing. He expected to "vigorously contest" the lawsuit. He admitted that the clothing policy limits "one medium of religious expression." But he said that students could express themselves religiously "in other ways." The case was settled out of court in early 2000-MAR in favor of Ms. Smith. The settlement agreement requires the school to revise its dress code "to mandate religious accommodations in accordance with the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment."

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News items from the year 2000 to the present time are located elsewhere

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References:

  1. Anon, "ACLU of R.I. Challenges School Ban on '666' T-Shirt," ACLU Newsfeed, 1998-NOV-13.
  2. A Website devoted to "Religious Expression in Public Schools" is at: http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/5752/  
  3. The Rutherford Institute has a web page at: http://www.rutherford.org/ 
  4. "ACLU supports student's right to wear Star of David," Catholic World News Briefs, 1999-AUG-18.
  5. "Religious leaders back Mississippi boy on Star of David," CNN Interactive, at: http://cnn.com:80/US/9908/19/miss.star.of.david.reut/ (Link no longer active).
  6. News release from the Alternative Religion Education Network, 1999-SEP-9
  7. Various news reports from the Roswell Daily Record at: http://www.roswell-record.com/ 

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Copyright © 1998 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written 1998-NOV

Last updated 2006-JUN-06 (06/06/06)
Author: B.A. Robinson

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