The ACLU of Louisiana has come to the defense of a Rastafarian boy who has been suspended from school and forbidden to return until he cuts his dreadlocks.
The boy was sent home from South Plaquemines High School when classes resumed Aug. 8 because his dreadlocks extended beyond the collar of his shirt, in apparent violation of the school dress code.
After he returned to school the following week with his hair pinned up, school officials told the student his dreadlocks remained in violation.
Rastafarians believe Leviticus 21:5 forbids them to cut their hair, and dreadlocks are central to their religious beliefs.
“The wearing of dreadlocks for (the student) is akin to the wearing of a religious icon by another student,” the ACLU said in a letter sent Monday to the Plaquemines Parish School Board.
The student’s mother provided a letter to the school superintendent from the 1st Church of Rastafar I that indicated the boy’s family were members and explained the importance of dreadlocks to their faith.
The superintendent told the teen’s mother that was not sufficient to allow the dreadlocks, and when she asked what documentation would be required, he told the mother he wasn’t a lawyer.
“We would object if the school were to tell a Christian student they could not wear a cross or if it were to permit the wearing of religious icons of one faith and prohibited those of another faith,” the civil rights group said. “In discriminating against (the student’s) religious beliefs, the school is expressing a preference for certain religions, which is unacceptable.”
Although the school has not formally suspended the student, he has missed 10 of the first 11 days of the school year over his dreadlocks.
“The actions of the school and Superintendent (Denis) Rousselle are the equivalent of an unlimited suspension,” the ACLU said.
The ACLU said the school had violated the student’s constitutional rights, as well as Louisiana’s Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.
That 2010 law imposes “strict scrutiny” on any burden of religious liberty, which in this case would force the school district to demonstrate a compelling interest in requiring the student to cut his hair.
“(The student) will be able to prove that his dreadlocks and hair length are a sincerely held religious belief of his Rastafari religion,” the ACLU said. “It is also a method of self-expression, because it communicates to others an important fact about (the student): 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 (his) statutory and constitutional rights.”
The ACLU seeks a hearing a formal hearing to request a dress code exemption for the teen and a reversal of any disciplinary action taken against him related to his dreadlocks.
Rastafarian children in Louisiana were given a mild exemption from school dress codes under a 2000 court settlement approved by the Lafayette Parish School Board.
The family involved in that case agreed their children would wear coverings over their hair that matched school uniforms and would not conceal any contraband.
Image: Rasta kids #6 by Chris Preen/Flickr