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Neb. School's Ban on Rosary-Style Necklace Touches on Free Speech Issues

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By Eryn Sun, Christian Post Reporter
October 4, 2011|3:47 pm

A 12-year-old girl in Nebraska who was forbidden from wearing her rosary-style necklace at school by her principal is looking to do whatever she can to stop the violation of religious freedom and “stand up for Jesus.”

Fighting the school’s ban on rosary necklaces, due to the use of the cross as a symbol of gang affiliation, sixth-grader Elizabeth Carey is unwilling to let the Fremont Public School District restrict her expression of faith.

“I’m deciding to stand up for Jesus and do whatever I can to stop this,” Carey told KETV Omaha. “I’m wearing a cross necklace, a cross T-shirt and a cross bracelet. I’m thinking of how Jesus died on the cross and how He gave up all his sins for us.”

The Nebraska school district’s dress code policy, however, did not stem from religious aversion but fear of safety for students, school leaders said.

Rosaries have been linked to gang affiliation in states like Oregon, Arizona and Texas, officials said.

“We had information from law enforcement that there were documented instances of gang activity in the area, and we had information that states that the rosary was being used as a symbol of gang affiliation,” Superintendent Steve Sexton told the station.

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Hoping to err on the side of safety, Sexton stated that the school district’s first and foremost goal was to protect the students. The school board voted last year to ban rosary necklaces after careful consideration with attorneys.

Though the district had no objection to the use of jewelry or apparel to express one’s faith, rosaries remained an exception, given the circumstances and potential dangers.

Upset by the ban, Carey was angered she was punished for wearing what she thought was not a rosary, but a necklace expressing her faith.

Regardless, she was still told not to wear her necklace, upsetting a slew of others as well, who found the restriction unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, standing behind Carey, said in a statement it “strongly opposed [the school’s] policy on the grounds [that] it violated the First Amendment’s guarantee to practice religion freely.”

“Students have the right to express their faith in public schools,” ACLU Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller argued. “Whether a student wants to wear a crucifix, a rosary or another symbol, it is wrong for school officials to interfere.”

“We understand the serious concerns about gangs in schools, but Fremont Public Schools should demonstrate there is a concrete gang connection before shutting down a student’s free speech and religious rights. ACLU Nebraska has and will continue to support the constitutional rights of religious people.”

Agreeing with the ACLU, Omaha Catholic Archdiocese Chancellor the Rev. Joseph Taphorn also said there needed to be concrete evidence of gang affiliation before punishing students for religious expression, in an appearance on KETV.

“I don’t think Christians should have to forfeit what is the symbol for the love of Christ because a few people want to misuse the symbol,” he told KETV. “The corruption of something as beloved as the rosary disgusts the Church.”

Looking to continue displaying the love of Christ and exercising her free speech rights, Carey plans to continue to wear cross necklaces and cross shirts to her school, with her parents, and the ACLU and the U.S. Constitution backing her.

Several others also showed their support in comments to the Fremont Tribune.

“I am proud of Elizabeth and her beliefs. I stand beside her all the way. She was wearing a necklace NOT a rosary. She is a sweet 6th grade girl who deserves kind words and support for her courage!!” wrote BigDad on the newspaper’s website.

User TrustButVerify wrote, “I certainly appreciate the school district’s concerns. However, does that mean if gangs start using the flag as a symbol, flag lapel pins will be banned? What if gangs use a Big Red N, will Nebraska paraphernalia, be banned? Educators need to ‘re-think’ this ban.”

But another user, mom of 2, disagreed, stating that “rules [were] rules and they were obviously put in place for a reason.”

“I have two children and my main concern is their safety and if that means sacrificing some fashion choices then that’s fine with me. Also religion is not a part of public schools. If you would like to wear a rosary I suggest you attend a private religious school. In my opinion the parents should be teaching her to respect the rules at the school and that she can wear her rosary at other times or put it in her pocket out of sight,” the comment read.

Sajeji, also siding with the schools, commented, “I’d be more worried if the schools didn’t care about what students wore.

“Most schools have dress codes that change as needed, and it is done for the benefit of all the students.”

“There are those who want to make this an issue about religion when it’s about a singular goal,” Sexton explained on KETV, “to create a safe environment for our students.”

When asked where to draw the line between protecting students’ safety and protecting their free speech rights, ACLU Nebraska did not immediately respond to The Christian Post. It also remained unclear whether they intended to officially file suit against the school district or not.

 

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