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Public schools in Texas adjust policies after Apache boy's case

Adriel Arocha was honored by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010 for standing up for his rights. Photo from Lipan Apache Tribe

Public schools in Texas have become more accommodating to religious concerns after an Apache boy and his family successfully challenged a policy against long hair.

Adriel Arocha, a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe, was only five years old when his family fought for their right to keep his hair long. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the policy in A.A. v Needville Independent School District and schools are now being trained to be more aware of religious and cultural practices.

“We’re a religiously diverse society, and we do have an obligation in our public schools to pause and consider what exceptions can be made,” Joy Baskin, the director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, told Education Week.

In practice, however, nothing is perfect. On the first day of school last fall, a five-year-old boy from the Navajo Nation was sent home for wearing long hair from another school in Texas but returned the next day in response to tribal and public pressure.

As for Arocha, his family successfully invoked the protections of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The 5th Circuit ruled that the school district's policy against long hair unfairly infringed on his beliefs.

"He has a sincere religious belief in wearing his hair uncut and in plain view; that belief is substantially burdened by the district’s grooming policy—even with the district’s proffered exemptions; and the district has put forth insufficient justification for its persistence in this matter," the 2010 decision stated.

The Texas law was written as a counterpart of sorts to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA came about as a result of Employment Division v. Smith, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the state of Oregon's policy against drug use could be used to deny unemployment benefits to two employees who were fired after using peyote as part of ceremonies with the Native American Church.

Nearly two dozen states have since enacted similar "religious freedom restoration" laws. Supporters have pointed to RFRA when confronted about the potential for such laws to sanction discrimination by private parties, such as businesses and corporations, instead of addressing governmental policies.

Get the Story:
Religious-Freedom Laws Add to Schools' Complex Duties (Education Week 4/10)

5th Circuit Decision:
A.A. v Needville Independent School District (July 9, 2010)

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