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Pierced girl sues school district after suspension

Claims religious discrimination

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Ariana Iacono believes that her nose piercing helps maintain her spiritual health, but the officials at Clayton High School near Raleigh, N.C., still suspended her because it violates their dress code.

The 14-year-old and her mother, Nikki Iacono, are both members of the Church of Body Modification and are now suing the school district, claiming religious discrimination.

"Ariana and her mother followed the rules and requested that the school district grant them a religious exemption," said the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement. "Nikki explained that the nose stud was Ariana's way of following in the religious tradition in which Nikki wanted to raise her."

The ACLU filed a request Wednesday for an injunction that would let the 14-year-old freshman return to school immediately, that would strike the incident from her record and that would grant her a dress-code exemption because of "sincerely held religious beliefs." The ACLU claims the First and 14th Amendment rights of Ariana and her mother "have repeatedly been violated by Johnston County school officials."

The school district's dress code prevents students from having "jewelry affixed to a student's nose, tongue, lips, cheek or eyebrow," but does allow for "reasonable accommodation" to be made for students who request a waiver because of "sincerely held religious beliefs."

Ariana can only win the case if she is actually sincere about her beliefs, said Eric Rassbauch, national litigation director at the Becket Fund.

"If there's not a connection to the transcendent, then it's not religious," he said.

Katy Parker, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said that the school district is "making a decision based on their opinion of the validity of the religion," and "we're just hoping to get Ariana back into school."

Ms. Parker represents Ariana and her mother along with Jon Sasser and Mary Kristen Kelly of Ellis & Winters in Raleigh, N.C.

David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center said North Carolina courts "have recognized religious exemptions" and that if the family "followed the policy for seeking an exemption, I'm not so sure she shouldn't win."

The Church of Body Modification is a small, 3,500-member church whose members pierce, tattoo and otherwise alter their bodies for spiritual reasons.

"As followers of this faith, it is our purpose to educate and inspire, to share ideas, and to help each other achieve our dreams," says the church's statement of faith. "We strive to unify and strengthen our mind, body, and soul so we can overcome any challenges we may encounter. We assert and protect our rights to modify our bodies and to practice our rituals."

The Rev. Richard Ivey III, an initiate minister for the church of Body Modification in Raleigh, and minister to Ariana and her mother, declined to comment at, he said, the behest of the ACLU.

According to the lawsuit, which represents only one point of view, when Ms. Iacono explained their religion to Clint Eaves, the principal of the school, Mr. Eaves said Ariana's piercing "would be treated differently if you were Muslims or Hindus."

After investigating the religion, Mr. Eaves determined that the nose piercing was not a requirement of the religion, and that Ariana would no longer be permitted to wear the nose piercing, a small stud about the size of a freckle, at school.

Over the course of a month, Ms. Iacono appealed the decision to various other officials in the Johnston County School District, none of whom overturned Mr. Eaves' decision.

After five dress-code violations and short-term suspensions, Ariana was given a long-term suspension Monday and referred to an alternative school, South Campus Community High School, nearly 14 miles away from her previous school.

"After causing Ariana to miss 19 of the first 28 days of her high school career, Defendants have now completely banned her from conventional school," states a brief in support of the case. "Each day that goes by during this crucial period of her development constitutes an irreparable loss."

The school referred calls from The Washington Times to the school district offices. Several attempts were made to contact the school district but, after a partial phone message was left on the first call, the phone was never subsequently picked up.

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