Legal experts are coming to the defense of a Rastafari high schooler in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, who was kicked out of class for having dreadlocks, arguing that school officials violated his right to religious freedom.
According to a letter published last week by the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a student — identified only as “John Doe” — was sent home from the first day of school at South Plaquemines High School on August 8th because his dreadlocks were too long. The student reportedly tried to return to school at least twice, but was repeatedly dismissed — even after he pinned up his dreadlocks to meet length requirements.
“Although the school has not given John Doe written notice of his suspension, the actions of the school and Superintendent Rousselle are the equivalent of an unlimited suspension,” the letter read.
School dress codes have a tendency to spark controversy, but the incident in Louisiana is complicated by the fact that the student, who ultimately missed ten days of school because of the dispute, claims to be a follower of the Rastafari tradition, a monotheistic religion that draws upon Judaism and Christianity and is popular in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. Not all Rastafari communities conscript believers to sport dreadlocks, but many Rasta males — including late musician and Rastafari Bob Marley — believe that growing long, locked hair is required by Leviticus 21:5, which reads, “They shall not make bald spots upon their heads, or shave off the edges of their beards, or make any gashes in their flesh.” As such, the ACLU’s letter argues that sending the student home violates his First and Fourteenth amendment rights — especially his freedom of religion.
“One of the tenets of the Rastafarian religion is that men should grow their hair long in dreadlocks,” the letter read. “John Doe will be able to prove that his dreadlocks and hair length are a sincerely held religious belief of his Rastafari religion. It is also a method of self-expression, because it communicates to others an important fact about John Doe: that he is a Rastafari for whom traditional religious practices are important to him and his family. By refusing to allow him to attend school, the Board is violating John Doe’s statutory and constitutional rights.”
The school’s principal, John Barthelemy, told ThinkProgress that the student behavioral code had previously only addressed “distracting” hair styles. But the school board updated their rules this summer, adding a prohibition against long hair. The high school, he said, was obligated to enforce the rules, and sent the student home.
“You cannot wear your hear below your eyes. You cannot wear your hair below your collar,” Barthelemy said in an interview.
However, Barthelemy disputes the ACLU’s claim that the student was suspended, and said the school board is currently attempting to accommodate his concerns. He explained that lawyers were meeting to “assess” the student’s religious claim and that school officials have permitted him to make up work he missed while away from school. He also noted that the student has been allowed to return to school, following a new agreement between the superintendent and the boy’s religious leader that he can attend classes as long as his hair is pinned up.
“We’re not going to deny anyone their freedoms,” Barthelemy said. “He’s in school receiving his education just like everyone else.”
The quick change of heart by local officials could be the result of pending legal action, as disputes involving students, religion, and hair length have come before courts before — with judges usually siding with students. As the ACLU letter points out, Louisiana has fielded similar cases in the past, one of which, Helaire, et al. v. Lafayette Parish, reportedly involved eight Rastafari children who were prohibited by a school board from wearing head coverings over their hair. The case ended in a settlement, with the school board waiving the dress code hair rules for the children. Additionally, there is strong Supreme Court precedent suggesting that the school’s policy violates the Constitution’s free speech protections. In the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court ruled that school boards generally may only regulate a student’s expression when it “materially and substantially disrupt[s] the work and discipline of the school.” It’s unlikely that dreadlocks below the collar would qualify.
Nevertheless, the issue of the right of public school students to grow their hair as they choose is rapidly becoming a hot topic during this back-to-school season; just last week, a Native American boy in Texas was sent home from kindergarten for sporting a long ponytail.