News and Commentary

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY WIN: Court Rules In Favor Of Students Banned From Extracurricular Activities Due To Religious Braids
Hair Plaits
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Two Texas students who have grown a single braid in their hair for religious reasons had been banned from participating in extracurricular activities for the past two years. Last week the brothers received a major court win and will be allowed to participate in sports and other activities.

The brothers, Cesar and Diego Gonzales, have grown the braids as part of a religious promise known as a promesa. They have kept this “promise” since birth, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty wrote in a press release about the brothers’ court win.

“After two years of needless bullying of students of faith, it’s now clear that the school district is breaking the law,” said Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket. “Mathis Independent School District should stop this foolish fight and do the right thing.”

The brothers’ school dress code prohibits male students from having hair past their collar, but they received a religious exemption until the sixth grade, participating in extracurricular programs without incident.

Once they entered seventh grade, however, they were told they would no longer receive the religious exemption and would not be allowed to participate in sports or clubs.

“It is unacceptable to keep children from doing what they love because of their religious beliefs,” said Alvarado. “Mathis ISD should follow the law and respect these students’ religious beliefs.”

On Thursday, a federal court granted the family’s request to force the school district to allow the Gonzalez brothers to participate in school programs while their case works its way through the legal system.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote in her order granting a preliminary injunction that the brothers “demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”

The ruling explains that the brothers made their promesa to God after birth. Cesar was sick as an infant, so their parents prayed to God for help. The parents also prayed during their mother’s pregnancy with Diego, since she had complications during her previous pregnancy. The brothers testified to Ramos that their “promesa has been, and continues to be, a sacred promise and an outward sign of their religious belief.”

“They believe that God would be disappointed in them and could withdraw his healing protection if they were to break the promesa by cutting the long strands of hair,” Ramos wrote.

This is not an uncommon religious practice. Keeping one’s hair long or wearing black after a loved one dies is a common practice in some Central American countries.

Ramos wrote that the brothers would be able to easily prove that the hair braids were a religious exercise and that the school’s refusal to give a religious exemption would present “a substantial burden” to their free exercise of religion.