ACLU Hails Judge’s Order to Reinstate Student

October 10, 2007

DETROIT – A Wayne County judge today ordered Old Redford Academy, a public charter school in Detroit, to temporarily reinstate a ninth grader who refused to cut his hair for religious reasons. Judge Kathleen MacDonald has scheduled an evidentiary hearing for Wednesday, October 17, 2007 at 10 a.m. She will then decide whether to extend the order.

Claudius Benson and his mother strictly abide by various Old Testament provisions, including a passage 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.

“This is an important victory for religious freedom,” said Mark Fancher, the ACLU of Michigan staff attorney who argued the case. “Public schools cannot close the doors to students based on their sincerely held religious beliefs.” 

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.

In court proceedings, Old Redford Academy defended their position by questioning the validity of the Benson’s religious beliefs and asserted that if a student’s religious convictions prevent him from complying with the dress code, and if the school alone believes that the student’s beliefs are not credible, the student should go to another school.

“Old Redford Academy’s defense is blatantly offensive,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “It goes against the principle of religious freedom which this country was founded upon. In the same way that a public charter school cannot deny admission based on a student’s race, it cannot deny admission based on a person’s religion. No public institution or school administrator should be deciding what is and is not an appropriate religious belief.”

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 unconstitutional and to treat 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.

“I am pleased with the judge’s decision to order Claudius back to school,” Alecha Benson said. “He’s been anxiously waiting for more than a month to get back into the classroom and to see his friends. For us, this fight is about much more than a haircut. It’s about 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 Fancher, Moss and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg.

To read the ACLU’s reply brief, visit www.aclumich.org/pdf/bensonreply.pdf
To read the school’s response brief, visit www.aclumich.org/pdf/defendantsresponse.pdf
To read the complaint, visit www.aclumich.org/pdf/bensoncomplaint.pdf 
To read the Brief in Support of Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order, visit www.aclumich.org/pdf/bensonbrief.pdf
To read the ACLU letter to Old Redford Academy, visit www.aclumich.org/pdf/orabensonletter.pdf

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