It's a rare religious dispute that gets Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State on the same side. But the case of a 13-year-old boy in New York who was suspended from school for wearing his rosary beads has done so.
Raymond Hosier was sent home from Oneida Middle School in Schenectady, N.Y., on May 17 for wearing a rosary because the school dress code terms beads "gang-related symbols." He was suspended indefinitely on May 19 when he again wore the rosary to school.
Mr. Lynn said the school district "clearly overreacted" and is trampling on the boy's religious freedom. "I think an injustice has been done to him in the false name of preventing gang problems," he said.
On the other hand, Mr. Donohue, who usually is on the opposite side of Mr. Lynn in church-state battles, said he agrees that the school's reaction is unfounded and "common sense is not being used here."
Raymond had been told he could wear the beads - which he wears to show his faith and to honor a deceased brother and uncle - only if he kept them under his clothing. He refused to wear the beads, which he considers an outward expression of faith, under his clothing.
On Tuesday, the American Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, saying that the school district's refusal to allow the boy to wear the beads is an unconstitutional denial of his rights to free speech and free exercise of religion and also that the dress code is "unconstitutionally vague."
That day, the judge granted ACLJ's request for a temporary restraining order allowing Raymond to return to school wearing his rosary. The order will last for 10 days, but a preliminary injunction may be granted on June 11 allowing the boy to attend school wearing his rosary for the duration of the case.
Ed White, senior counsel for ACLJ, said Raymond, who is "a believing Christian," has consistently explained his reasons for wearing the rosary at school.
"He wants to have an outward expression of his faith and his love for his brother and uncle," said Mr. White, who is heading up litigation in Raymond's case.
Despite historical cases of rosaries being used as symbols for gangs, Mr. White said, in order for the rosary to legitimately be considered a gang symbol, Raymond would have had to have caused or been likely to cause "material and substantial disruption" to the operation of Oneida Middle School.
According to Mr. White, Assistant Principal Lee Satterlee said the school district knows the rosary is not a gang symbol in this case but that it is leaving enforcement of the rules to school Principal Karmen McEvoy.
The school board, Mr. White said, has held the position that "rules are rules" and the beads are considered a gang symbol even though they are a religious symbol and part of an expression of free speech.
"They're going to crack down on them, even to the point of being ridiculous," Mr. White said.
Several phone calls to Miss McEvoy and the Schenectady City school board were referred to the school's spokeswoman, Karen Corona, who said the school is withholding comment.
Among several similar cases setting precedent in Raymond's case is a 1969 Supreme Court case involving students wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the high court ruled that students do not lose their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression once they set foot on school grounds.
Mr. Lynn said he thinks broad and sweeping generalizations such as the Oneida school's vague dress code fail most practical and constitutional measures and that the school's action eliminates Raymond's legitimate rights to freedom of speech and religious expression.
Mr. Donohue said that though he is sympathetic to both sides, having been a teacher before becoming president of the Catholic League, he thinks the school has gone too far for the sake of trying to prevent gang activity.
"I think ACLJ has it right in this case," he said.
Mr. Donohue said that although there have been cases in which rosaries were used as gang symbols and schools must be careful to prevent gang violence, there is no indication in Raymond's case of any link to gang activity. It is a delicate balance, he said, but "the school has shown they are not interested in balance."
David Cortman, senior legal counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group defending religious freedom, said that in such cases, schools are either ignorant of the law or are demonstrating pure hostility against religion in public schools.
"I think there's a widespread need for schools to be educated on the First Amendment," he said, adding that Christian students do not lose their right to religious expression when they are at school.
"The school needs to target the specific gang problems they have," Mr. Cortman said. "They cannot paint with a broad brush."
"Schools in general need to deal with real problems and real solutions," Mr. Lynn said.
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