Sep 15, 2011

A Texas public school district’s grooming policy requires that boys keep their hair trimmed so that it does not cover their ears or touch the top of their shirt collar at the back of the neck. The parents of a Native American kindergartner sought an exemption from the policy so that their child could wear his hair long and in braids, in accordance with the family’s Native American religious beliefs. When the school district refused to grant the exemption, the parents filed suit in federal district court. On January 20, 2009, the district court permanently enjoined the school district from applying its grooming policy to the child. The court concluded that the policy violated the child’s rights under the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses as well as under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and also violated the parents’ due-process right to determine their child’s religious upbringing. The school district appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. On June 25, 2009, Americans United filed an amicus brief supporting the family. We argued that the Fifth Circuit could, and should, affirm the district court’s ruling that applying the grooming policy to the child violates the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act because the burden imposed on the religious freedom of the child and his parents outweighed any legitimate interest of the school district in rigidly applying its grooming policy, and did not interfere with the district’s interests in directing the education of students and efficiently running the schools. We also explained that granting the requested exemption would not violate the Establishment Clause because the exemption would not impose burdens on the rights or interests of other students, teachers, or school administrators. On July 9, 2010, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, concluding that applying the grooming policy to the child violates the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.