The School District Violated Students’ Rights Under Texas Religious Freedom Law

Parents B.G. and P.G. filed suit against Mathis Independent School District (MISD), alleging violations of their religious and constitutional rights by banning their children, C.G. and D.G., from participation in MISD’s extra-curricular activities.

The parents are Hispanic and practice the Roman Catholic religion. As an expression or exercise of their faith and heritage, and in a promise (promesa) to God, the parents have kept a strand of hair on the back of the children’s heads uncut since birth. More recently, the children have adopted that promise as their own affirmation of faith and heritage and continue to maintain the single long braid down their backs. However, the parents admit that the promise is not dictated by the Catholic religion and they could change it at any time.

Until 2017, MISD granted the students a religious exemption from the school dress code and its hair grooming policy to accommodate the promesa and the associated braids. More recently, however, MISD notified the family that the children would not be permitted to participate in any extra-curricular or UIL (University Interscholastic League) activities unless they complied with the hair grooming policy, prompting legal action.

MISD allowed the children to participate in Student Council, Art Club, and a Video Game and Programming Club, but D.G. was taken off the seventh grade UIL Science Team for his school. It remains unclear why D.G. was denied participation in at least one field trip for Student Council and C.G. was not allowed to participate in a school band concert, which affected his academic grade.

The parents filed suit under the First Amendment and state law.  Texas has enacted the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TRFRA”), which requires consideration of (1) whether the government’s regulations burden the plaintiff’s free exercise of religion; (2) whether the burden is substantial; (3) whether the regulations further a compelling governmental interest; and (4) whether the regulations are the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

The district court granted judgment in favor of the parents on the TRFRA claim.  The TRFRA places the responsibility of proving a substantial burden on plaintiffs. But it is MISD’s burden to show a compelling state interest and least restrictive means.  According to the Court, the parents’ evidence was sufficient to establish a substantial burden. The District maintained that the promesa is not a religious belief, but a religious practice.

The Court rejected that argument and held that the parents provided uncontroverted evidence that MISD’s policy required the family to curtail the entire religious act involved in their promesa, which is important to their religious beliefs, or suffer the loss of important educational and recreational benefits normally provided to enrich students and prepare them for a successful future. Plaintiffs have demonstrated a substantial burden. And MISD has failed to raise a disputed issue of material fact in this regard.

The Court, therefore, entered judgment in favor of the parents on the TRFRA claim.

The case is Gonzales v. Mathis Independent School District, No. 2:18-CV-43, 2021 WL 148947 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 15, 2021).

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