By Rebecca Robertson
Director, Public Policy and Advocacy
In a word, no! School dress codes cannot, in most cases, be used to prevent students from wearing religious attire.
What does the law say on the subject? Both the Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA) protect students’ rights to wear religious attire in school. The law is very strict: a Texas public school can only prevent a student from wearing religious attire if there is no less restrictive way to further the school’s compelling interest.
Despite the law, school dress codes are often problematic. In our experience, religious head coverings in school are the subject of a lot of confusion. Many faith traditions include the wearing of a head covering – such as a turban, yarmulke, or head scarf – as an expression of devotion or modesty.
But it’s not just kids who practice a minority faith who find themselves at odds with school administrators over these issues. Even kids from so-called “mainstream” religious traditions can be impacted. For example, although almost a third of Texans identified as Catholic in the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, some Texas school districts have tried to ban rosaries.
Schools that insist on enforcing dress codes over kids’ sincere religious objections may find themselves answering to a judge. Courts in Texas have repeatedly ruled in favor of students’ rights to wear religious attire. For example, a federal court in Houston ruled against a school that punished Catholic students for wearing rosaries, and two others have prohibited schools from requiring American Indian boys to cut their hair to comply with a campus dress code.
The bottom line? Schools cannot restrict this kind of religious observance by students; school dress codes need to accommodate students’ religious practice.
Coming up, one of the more hotly debated issues – school prayer.