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ACLJ Confronts School Officials After a Teacher Forcibly Removed a Cross Necklace From a Student's Neck While at School



April 20, 2023

4 min read

Religious Liberty



Recently, a parent whose child is enrolled in Hixson Middle School, a public school in  Tennessee, reached out to us for help. The parent explained that her child wore a cross necklace to school. While attending a Book Fair during the school day, a teacher forcibly removed the cross from the student’s necklace.

The events occurred in the presence of several students and understandably the teacher’s outrageous targeting of this child, ripping the cross from his neck in front of his classmates, left the child confused and embarrassed.

Immediately upon being informed of the incident, the ACLJ took action by sending a demand letter to school officials informing them of the incident and requesting their prompt attention to the matter. In our letter, we explained that the United States Supreme Court has very clearly held that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969). Moreover, the Court has emphasized the importance of protecting students’ rights to freedom of speech and expression so as “not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth [not] to discount important principles.” Id. at 507 (quoting West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 637 (1943)). Students’ rights are protected not only in the classroom but also all over the school campus – in the cafeteria, on the field, or on campus at other times during authorized hours. Students may express their opinions or religious beliefs, even if they are controversial.

Further, while there are limited circumstances in which school officials may regulate speech, there are threshold requirements for doing so. Id. For example, as the Court in Tinker instructed, school officials may apply “reasonable regulation[s] [to] speech-connected activities in carefully restricted circumstances” (emphasis added). In other words, for a student’s speech or expression to be considered unprotected, it must “materially disrupt[] classwork or involve[] substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others . . . .” However, “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” Notably, the U.S. Department of Education has provided further guidance on this issue and has instructed that “students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages. Religious messages may not be singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the same rules as generally apply to comparable messages.” Certainly, the wearing of a cross necklace while at school does not rise to the level of “material and substantial interference” that the Court requires for a regulation on student speech to be considered constitutional.

In this case, our client’s conduct did not violate any of the school’s rules, including the dress code, nor was his conduct in wearing the cross necklace materially disruptive to the class. The student was operating within the school’s rules when he wore the cross necklace and had no reason to think that there would be any disciplinary consequences for exercising his constitutional rights. Our client was singled out and humiliated in front of his classmates for wearing this cross necklace.

We quickly took action. Because the actions of the teacher were disrespectful, inappropriate, and embarrassing for the student who was simply quietly and peacefully engaging in constitutionally protected activity, we have requested that school officials meet with our client and the other students who witnessed the incident, publicly apologize for the teacher’s reprehensible actions, and provide the students necessary assurances regarding their First Amendment rights. The ACLJ has also requested that the school either replace the destroyed necklace or reimburse the student so he can replace it himself.

No student should ever have to fear their teacher publicly embarrassing them for their faith and forcibly removing a cross necklace or any other religious attire.

Whether it concerns sending a letter to a school principal or arguing before the United States Supreme Court, the ACLJ stands ready and willing to defend your constitutional right to religious liberty. For a more robust analysis of students’ constitutional rights while at school, please see our memorandum “Know Your Rights: Students Maintain Their Constitutional Rights to Freedom of Religion and Free Speech While at School.”

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