Column: Texas law helps protect Native American religious rights
"After a yearlong legal battle, Adriel Arocha has finally won the right to attend public school wearing his hair in traditional braids — a practice his family believes is essential for expressing their faith as members of the Liban Apache tribe.

Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that a Texas school district violated the then-kindergartner's religious-freedom rights in 2008 when it refused to exempt him from the district's dress code requiring boys to wear short hair.

What's striking about the court decision is not only the outcome, but also how it was reached. Texas law, specifically the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was invoked to decide Adriel's religious-freedom claim — not the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the First Amendment no longer provides strong protection for free-exercise claims against government laws or regulations that burden religious practices. That's because the Supreme Court seriously weakened the reach of the free-exercise clause in Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 decision involving the use of peyote for religious purposes by Native Americans. The Court majority said government no longer must show a "compelling interest" before denying a religious exemption to an otherwise neutral, generally applicable law."

Get the Story:
Charles C. Haynes: Native American faith protected by valuable law (The Green Bay Press-Gazette 7/21)

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Commentary: Native boy fights to keep hair long (6/30)