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Federal court upholds young boy’s religious rights to long hair

Houston, Texas (AP) July 2010

A federal appeals court ruled July 9 that a Texas school district cannot punish an American Indian kindergartner for wearing his hair in traditional braids to express his family’s religious beliefs.

The ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upholds a Houston lower court ruling.

The 5-year-old boy’s parents, Kenney Arocha and Michelle Betenbaugh, argued their son, identified in court papers as A.A., has a constitutional right to wear a hairstyle that conforms to his Native American religious beliefs. Arocha hasn’t cut his hair in 11 years, believing the long braids have religious meaning. His son’s hair has never been cut.

The boy wears his 13-inch-long hair in two braids outside his shirt.

The Needville Independent School District argued its grooming policy requires a boy’s hair to not cover his ears or touch the top of his shirt collar. The policy is designed to teach proper hygiene, promote discipline and avoid disruptions in school, according to Roger Hepworth, a lawyer for the district.

School officials initially refused to exempt the boy but later allowed him to wear a single braid tucked into his shirt. His parents challenged that proposal.

Last year, a federal judge barred the district from disciplining the boy.

“We feel vindicated in our beliefs that no parents should be forced to choose between their religion and culture and a public education for their children,” Arocha and Betenbaugh said in a news release. “As parents, we are relieved that our son can continue his education without being shamed for his beliefs.”

During arguments before the appeals court, Judge E. Grady Jolly pressed Hepworth to explain why the district had prolonged the court challenge rather than allow the boy to wear his hairstyle of choice.

“It’s not the (lower) court’s job to decide how the policy should be,” Hepworth had said. “It’s the school district’s, within constitutional limits.”

Needville is about 45 miles southwest of Houston.




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