ACLU Files Religious Liberty Lawsuit on Behalf of Ninth Grader Facing Expulsion

DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of a ninth grader at Old Redford Academy, a public charter school in Detroit, who is facing expulsion for his refusal to comply with a strict dress code requiring all male students to maintain “closely cropped” hairstyles. A hearing is scheduled before Third Circuit Court Judge Kathleen MacDonald on Thursday, October 4, 2007 at 9 a.m.

Claudius Benson’s mother strictly abides by various Old Testament provisions, including a passage in the Book of Leviticus that forbids the cutting of hair. Pursuant to her faith, Claudius, 14, has not cut his hair since he was 4 years old.

"Punishing Claudius for practicing his religion is both unnecessary and illegal," said Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. "Students should never have to choose between remaining faithful to their religion and getting an education."

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 hair provisions of the school’s dress code. 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, have to date, refused to reinstate Claudius.

Before filing suit, the ACLU of Michigan sent a letter to the school’s attorney stating that Old Redford Academy is 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.

The ACLU of Michigan is asking the court to declare the school’s action as unconstitutional and grant a special accommodation for Claudius in much the same way that Jewish students who are required to wear a yarmulke would be exempt from rules that prohibit the wearing of hats in the school building. In addition, the ACLU of Michigan is asking the court to force the school to erase this infraction from Claudius’ school record.

“We teach our kids about the Bill of Rights, about freedom and about tolerance,” said Alecha. “Today my son is getting a real life lesson. This is about much more than a haircut -- It’s about fairness, equality and our religious beliefs.”

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. 

Claudius Benson is being represented by Moss, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Staff Attorney Mark P. Fancher.

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