ACLU Applauds School’s Decision to Grant Religious Accommodation to Student

October 16, 2007

DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced victory today in the case of Claudius Benson, a ninth grader who was suspended from Old Redford Academy for refusing to cut his hair for religious reasons.

At a special meeting of the Old Redford Academy Board of Directors held last night, members voted to approve a resolution that would grant Claudius a religious accommodation to the public charter school’s strict dress code requiring all male students to maintain “closely cropped” hairstyles. Last week, Wayne County Judge Kathleen MacDonald ordered Old Redford Academy to temporarily reinstate Claudius. The board resolution will allow Claudius to permanently return to school without court order and the school has agreed to erase this infraction from Claudius’ school record.

“We’re encouraged that Old Redford Academy has made the right decision,” said Mark Fancher, the ACLU of Michigan staff attorney who argued the case. “It is our hope that, although belated, the school has recognized that no public institution or school administrator can decide what is or is not an appropriate religious belief.

Claudius Benson and his mother strictly abide by various Old Testament provisions, including a verse in the Book of Leviticus that they interpret as forbidding men to cut their hair. Because of their faith, Claudius, 14, has not cut his hair since he was 4 years old.

“I am just very happy to be back in school,” said Claudius.  

Claudius was enrolled in Old Redford Academy for only three days, when he was suspended on grounds that he was not in compliance with the provisions of the school’s dress code that require “closely-cropped” hair. After his suspension, Claudius’ mother, Alecha Benson, appealed the suspension to the school’s governing board and Chief Executive Officer outlining her sincerely-held religious beliefs. Nonetheless, the school’s board and CEO refused to reinstate Claudius before this court order.

Before filing suit, the ACLU of Michigan sent a letter to the school’s attorney stating that Old Redford Academy was violating Claudius’ rights under the Michigan State Constitution, the religion and free speech clauses of the United States Constitution, and the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1969.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Michigan settled another case with Old Redford Academy involving a 5th grader whose hair was no longer than ¾ of and inch and deemed too long. Rodell Jefferson, III, was repeatedly punished with detentions, suspensions and was finally recommended for expulsion. Soon after the ACLU of Michigan intervened, the school agreed to allow Rodell to come back to school and to clear his school records of this incident. 

The evidentiary hearing scheduled for Wednesday, October 17, 2007 at 10 a.m. before Wayne County Judge Kathleen MacDonald has been canceled.

Claudius Benson is being represented by Fancher, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg.

Old Redford Academy Board of Directors resolution: www.aclumich.org/pdf/ORAresolution.pdf

ACLU’s reply brief: www.aclumich.org/pdf/bensonreply.pdf

Read the school’s response brief: www.aclumich.org/pdf/defendantsresponse.pdf

Read the complaint: www.aclumich.org/pdf/bensoncomplaint.pdf  

Brief in Support of Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order: www.aclumich.org/pdf/bensonbrief.pdf

To read the ACLU letter to Old Redford Academy, visit www.aclumich.org/pdf/orabensonletter.pdf

To read more about Rodell Jefferson, III, case, visit http://aclumich.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=526

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