Brothers, C.G. and D.G., were students in Mathis Independent School District (“MISD”) and are Roman Catholics of Hispanic descent. When C.G. was an infant, the family learned that C.G. had contracted bacterial meningitis, a potentially life-threatening infection. Seeking God’s protection in both the pregnancy and C.G.’s illness, the parents made a promesa (promise) that they would leave a lock of both brothers’ hair uncut. The promesa or manda, an established practice among American Catholics of Hispanic descent, involves petitioning God with a specific request, often related to a difficult medical condition, with a vow to fulfill certain stipulations in return. That the family’s religious belief, including the promesa, is sincerely held was not challenged.
The parents observed the promesa until the brothers reached sixth grade, leaving a lock of hair on the backs of their heads uncut and braided. In sixth grade, the brothers chose to adopt the promesa as their own and continue to observe it, describing it as an important part of their faith.
MISD’s dress code prohibits male students’ hair from “extend[ing] beyond the top of the collar of a standard shirt in back.” The district’s Extracurricular Handbook makes participation in extracurricular activities contingent on compliance with this grooming policy. From the time the brothers entered kindergarten until 2017, when they were in middle school, MISD granted religious exemptions that allowed them to attend school and participate in extracurricular activities without restriction. Then, in August 2017, an MISD coach told C.G. that he could not play football unless he cut his hair. The family challenged the hair restriction through the district’s grievance process, but the grievance was denied.
Thereafter the brothers were prohibited from participating in UIL extracurricular activities. The family filed suit alleging claims under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TRFRA”) and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution. They also sought injunctive relief under the TRFRA to prevent the district from excluding the boys from extracurricular activities. The district court granted preliminary injunctions to both brothers, and the school district appealed. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction as to one brother but vacated the other.
Under the TRFRA, a person may not bring an action unless, 60 days before bringing the action, the person gives written notice to the government agency by certified mail, return receipt requested. A court will not have jurisdiction over the matter unless notice is given. In this case, neither C.G. nor D.G. strictly complied with TRFRA’s pre-suit notice provision. An exception to the notice provision applies, however, if the school’s imminent action burdening the boys’ religious rights left the family without time to give pre-suit notice.
As to C.G., the district court held, and the appeals court agreed, that there was not time to reasonably provide the 60-day notice after the district informed the family it intended to immediately and indefinitely bar C.G. from extracurricular activities. Because C.G. fell within the exception to pre-suit notice, MISD’s governmental immunity was waived, and there was no jurisdictional defect in C.G.’s TRFRA claim. However, D.G. did not fall within the exception for pre-suit notice because he had been added to the lawsuit two months after it had been filed and there was ample time to provide notice of his claims to MISD.
Although D.G.’s noncompliance with TRFRA’s pre-suit notice requirement required the appeals court to vacate the preliminary injunction as to him, the court observed: “This disposition may prove to be of little practical consequence; both brothers are constrained by MISD’s hair policy and should the district court ultimately conclude that the policy is invalid under TRFRA, D.G. may enjoy the benefits from that ruling and the strong protections afforded students by TRFRA going forward, matters not now before this Court. However, our case law requiring strict compliance with TRFRA’s prerequisites to suit here control.” Gonzales v. Mathis Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 19-40776, 2020 WL 6194463 (5th Cir. Oct. 22, 2020)
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