ACLU sues Johnston County Schools over piercing

Ariana Iacono

October 6, 2010 5:32:08 PM PDT
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Johnston County Public Schools on behalf of 14-year-old Ariana Iacono, who wears a nose stud as part of her religion.

School administrators have suspended Iacono, who is a freshman at Clayton High School, numerous times for wearing a nose stud to school.

The ACLU says Johnston County school officials are violating Iacono's Constitutional rights by not allowing her to wear the jewelry. According to Iacono, she wears the stud as part of her affiliation with the Church of Body Modification.

According to the school's dress code policy, facial piercings are prohibited except for religious reasons.

However, according to Iacono and her mother, they requested a religious exemption per the rules but never received one.

The Iaconos offered evidence to support their affiliation with the church and the wearing of the stud as a religious practice, but say the school dismissed their explanations.

"We followed all the rules, so I don't understand why the school is being so unreasonable," said Nikki Iacono, Ariana's mother. "The dress code policy allows for a religious exemption, and I explained to the principal and various school officials how my daughter's nose stud is essential to the expression of our family's religious values. Ariana had gotten excellent grades in middle school, but now she is in danger of flunking out of her freshman year of high school because the principal won't let her back in class unless she removes her nose stud or covers it up, which is asking her to hide her religion."

The school has suspended Ariana a total of four times this school year, citing the piercing as the reason.

According to the ACLU, the fourth suspension, which was on September 21, gave Ariana the right to file an administration appeal.

After an October 4 hearing, Deputy Superintendent Shelly Marsh denied the appeal and told the teen she was not allowed to attend Clayton High for the remainder of the school year. Instead, she will have to attend an alternative school, South Campus Community High School.

However, Ariana is not allowed to wear the nose stud to her new school, and she will be cited in violation of the Johnston County Schools dress code if she wears it on campus.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a court order that will allow Ariana "to return Clayton High School immediately, to be allowed to make up the work she has missed, and to suffer no further consequences for exercising her religious beliefs."

"A child's religious upbringing should be directed by her parents, not by government officials in the Johnston County school district," said Jon Sasser, Chairman of the ACLU-NCLF's Legal Committee and lead Cooperating Attorney on this case. "Ariana's nose stud in no way poses a health or safety risk to her or to others, nor is she disrupting the learning environment or interfering with other students' rights to receive an education. The school continues to violate Ariana's and Nikki's constitutional rights each and every day that Ariana is barred from practicing her religion by wearing a tiny nose stud."

The ACLU-NCLF's complaint and other court papers filed this morning are posted on the ACLU-NCLF's website at www.acluofnorthcarolina.org.

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