A Texas school district has been warned that “the law is clear” and it will lose in court if it doesn’t reverse its decision to ban two brothers from activities such as football because of the length of their hair.
The Mathis Independent School Board prohibits boys from participating in extracurricular activities if their hair is longer than collar-length. But the Texas Association of School Boards requires districts to “accommodate requests for exceptions based on a student or parent’s sincerely held religious belief,” argues Montse Alvarado, a spokesman for the non-profit legal group Becket.
Becket wrote a letter to the district on behalf of Cesar and Diego Gonzales warning it is bound to lose the case. The boys each have a small strand of long hair that they have vowed not to cut because of a promise their Roman Catholic family made to God.
“A religious promise to keep a small strand of uncut hair shouldn’t ban school children from catching touchdowns or participating in student council meetings,” said Alvarado.
“The school board should give these boys a chance to be active in the sports and clubs they love – not only because the school would lose miserably in court, but because it is the right thing to do.”
Becket explained that when Cesar was an infant, he contracted a serious illness, and his parents, Pedro and Belen Gonzales, made a promise to God never to cut a small strand of their son’s hair if he was healed.
“The family has kept this deeply personal religious promise ever since, and their sons have adopted the religious promise as their own,” Becket said.
“Although the school’s dress code forbids male students from having hair past the collar, the school district granted an exemption to the boys from kindergarten through sixth grade, and they participated in school activities with no problem. The Texas Association of School Boards also instructs school districts that they ‘must accommodate requests for exceptions [from grooming codes] based on a student or parent’s sincerely held religious belief.'”
‘The law is clear’
Luke Goodrich, a Becket senior counsel, said in a letter to the district that “the law is clear, and the school district will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if it does not respect these students’ religious liberty.”
“Religious liberty is a fundamental human right, and the school district should set an example for its students of respecting human dignity,” he said.
“In this day and age, a school should be warm and welcoming toward students of diverse beliefs. But instead these boys have been needlessly traumatized and targeted by the very teachers who should protect them from this kind of bullying.”
Becket said it is prepared to intervene in the case and “defend Cesar and Diego’s right to learn and play alongside their classmates” if necessary.
The organization told the district: “We have won multiple cases in Texas and the Fifth Circuit under the laws at issue in your case, and we are undefeated in the U.S. Supreme Court. … We strongly urge you to settle this case.”
The family, separately, is represented by Frank Rey Gonzales of Corpus Christi, Texas.
The district, from kindergarten through sixth grade, made an exception allowing the boys to keep their long strand.
But when they began seventh grade, the district abruptly reversed course.
“The boys were banned from all University Interscholastic League (UIL) interschool competition in sports and clubs, which meant they couldn’t play on the football team or travel with the robotics team. Cesar’s grades even began to suffer when he was excluded from band performances – a core part of the academic band grade,” Becket reported.
The family sued the district, and now Becket is adding its counsel to the case.
It cited a similar case over hair length that resulted in the student and his family being paid more than $160,000 by a school district. In another case, courts ruled against a school rule requiring Catholics to conceal their rosaries. And a district lost its fight to ban Sikh students from bringing ceremonial knives to school.