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Lawsuit over Native students' haircuts can go forward against Nebraska school district

Lawsuit over Native students' haircuts can go forward against Nebraska school district

A federal judge has ruled that a civil lawsuit can go forward against a north-central Nebraska school district after an employee cut Native students’ hair against their family’s religious beliefs.

Alice Johnson and Norma Leroy, both parents of Cody-Kilgore elementary school students, sued the school district with the help of the ACLU of Nebraska earlier this year after a school employee cut their daughters’ hair without their permission on multiple occasions during lice checks at the school in 2020.

They say the haircuts continued even after family members went to the school superintendent, Adam Lambert, and explained that it violated Lakota tradition. As members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, they believe hair is a sacred symbol and should be cut only under certain conditions and by certain people.

The ACLU accused the school district of racial discrimination, saying the district had an unwritten head-lice policy that applied only to Native students and it prevented the family from raising their children in accordance with the Lakota tradition.

The school district had argued that the case should be dismissed.

But it didn’t question the sincerity of the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs regarding their hair. Instead, the district’s attorney argued that their rights hadn’t been violated because it was a neutral policy with a legitimate government interest that only incidentally burdened their religious beliefs and that the district agreed to stop cutting their hair going forward.

But in a decision last week, U.S. District Judge John Gerrard said: “The court can plausibly infer that the defendants’ allegedly targeted actions, even if done in pursuit of the legitimate government interest of detecting head lice, in effect selectively imposed a substantial burden on the religious exercise of Native American students in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.”

The fact that the school district has promised not to cut the children’s hair in the future has no impact on whether the families could get damages for previous improper conduct, he said.

At the same time, Gerrard said he could not find that their actions violated the family’s constitutional right to direct the religious upbringing of their children because the policy was, at least in part, rationally related to detecting and stopping the spread of head lice among students.

And he dismissed the Fourteenth Amendment claim, as well as a state battery claim, that the ACLU didn’t dispute the court lacked jurisdiction over.

But the judge said they had presented sufficient facts to support an inference that the unwritten policy had violated their right to exercise their religion freely.

“Considered together, these facts are enough at this stage to ‘support the existence of an unconstitutional policy,’ “ Gerrard wrote.

In a press release Wednesday, Johnson said it’s a relief the case is moving forward.

“We hope and pray that our family’s experience ensures this never happens again — not just for our kids, but all Lakota youth,” she said.

The lawsuit seeks a court determination that the school violated the students’ rights and unspecified damages.

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