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Religious Liberty

The ACLU works to guarantee that all people are free to follow and practice their faith -- or no faith at all -- without government influence or interference and that the government remains completely neutral regarding matters of religion and belief. 

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will not review a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit finding that the Forsyth County, North Carolina, Board of Commissioners violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by opening an estimated four-fifths of public meetings with sectarian prayer.

The case, Joynerv. Forsyth County, was filed in 2007 by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF), and the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, on behalf of Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon.

The two women are longtime Forsyth County residents who had attended meetings of the County Board of Commissioners and objected to the sectarian invocations that were routinely delivered by clergy at meetings. A U.S. magistrate judge, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals previously ruled the prayers unconstitutional, holding that their content amounted to a government endorsement of Christianity over other belief systems.

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RALEIGH – The ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) today successfully settled a federal lawsuit against the Johnston County Schools on behalf of Clayton High School freshman Ariana Iacono (pictured) and her mother, Nikki Iacono. The ACLU-NCLF sued the school district on October 6, 2010, after Ariana was repeatedly suspended and then banned from Clayton High School for wearing a nose stud, a tiny gem piercing no bigger than the average freckle, as a fundamental expression of the religion which both she and her mother practice. The lawsuit alleged that the school’s refusal to grant a religious exemption to their dress code policy violated the Iaconos’ constitutional rights to religious freedom, due process and equal protection of the laws. U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard issued an emergency court order on October 8th, allowing Ariana to return to school and wear her nose stud while the litigation was pending. Today, Judge Howard signed off on the settlement agreed to by both sides.

Under the terms of the settlement, the dress code policy for Johnston County Schools will be amended so that school officials won’t be determining which practices are “central to religious doctrine” and which are not, and students will be given more leeway in demonstrating that their religious beliefs are sincere. Moreover, Ariana will be allowed to continue to wear her nose stud as long as this remains part of her religious practice, her disciplinary record will be wiped clean with respect to her wearing this nose stud, and she will be allowed to retake a science class that she was unable to complete this year due to the length of time she was suspended over her nose stud early last fall.

“Today’s settlement is a big victory for the religious freedom rights of all students in Johnston County Schools,” said Jon Sasser, Cooperating Attorney for the ACLU-NCLF. “The United States Supreme Court has firmly held that schools have no business getting in between parents and their children when it comes to religion.”

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RALEIGH - Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) have sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request today asking U.S. Army officials to provide information about a religious event that was held last fall at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

In the FOIA request, the civil liberties groups asked Secretary of the Army John McHugh to provide documents related to an evangelical Christian rally at the fort last year and a secularist event planned for this year.

“Last fall, we expressed concern to Secretary McHugh about Army officials’ planning and support of a Christian concert,” said Katy Parker, Legal Director for the ACLU-NCLF. “The Constitution requires that the government, including the military, remain neutral on matters of religion so that citizens, including members of the military, are free to express their own beliefs without fear of coercion or reprisal.”

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RALEIGH – U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard granted an emergency court order this morning, allowing 14-year-old Clayton High School freshman Ariana Iacono to return to classes and preventing the school from disciplining her for wearing a tiny peridot nose stud essential to her religious practices pending the outcome of a November 3rd preliminary injunction hearing in her family’s lawsuit against the Johnston County Schools. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday morning, October 6th, on behalf of Ariana Iacono and her mother, Nikki Iacono, alleging that the school’s refusal to grant a religious exemption to the dress code violates the Iaconos’ constitutional rights to religious freedom, due process and equal protection of the laws.

“We are thrilled that Ariana can return to her studies,” said Nikki Iacono. “She has missed 22 days of school already this year because the school has wrongfully forced her to choose between her education and our family’s religion. Ariana was an honor roll student in middle school, and she is eager to get back to her classes and continue with her education as soon as possible.”

After hearing arguments from both sides this morning, Judge Howard issued a temporary restraining order so that Ariana would not miss any more school while the underlying litigation on the constitutional questions is ongoing. In granting the emergency order, Judge Howard concluded that the Iaconos are likely to succeed in the underlying constitutional lawsuit, that Ariana is suffering irreparable harm each day she is exiled from her school, and that the school will not suffer harm if Ariana is allowed to continue her education while wearing her tiny nose stud. On November 3, 2010, the Court will hear arguments from both sides to determine whether a preliminary injunction should be granted, which would then allow Ariana to remain in school pending the completion of the entire litigation.

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RALEIGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) filed a lawsuit in federal court this morning on behalf of 14-year-old Clayton High School freshman Ariana Iacono and her mother, Nikki Iacono, whose constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution have repeatedly been violated by Johnston County school officials. Ariana wears a nose stud, a tiny gem piercing no bigger than the average freckle, as a fundamental expression of the religion which both she and her mother practice. The Johnston County dress code policy prohibits facial piercings but allows for exemptions to the policy for religious reasons. Ariana and her mother followed the rules and requested that the school district grant them a religious exemption, and Nikki explained that the nose stud was Ariana’s way of following in the religious tradition in which Nikki wanted to raise her. Nikki offered evidence to support her claim that this was a sincerely held religious belief, but her efforts were rebuffed and her religion dismissed by every school official to whom she turned for help.

“We followed all the rules, so I don’t understand why the school is being so unreasonable,” said Nikki Iacono. “The dress code policy allows for a religious exemption, and I explained to the principal and various school officials how my daughter’s nose stud is essential to the expression of our family’s religious values. Ariana had gotten excellent grades in middle school, but now she is in danger of flunking out of her freshman year of high school because the principal won’t let her back in class unless she removes her nose stud or covers it up, which is asking her to hide her religion.”

Despite the fact that she had been an honor roll student in middle school, Clayton High School principal Clint Eaves has suspended Ariana four (4) times this school year for no other reason than the fact that her left nostril is pierced with a tiny gem. The fourth suspension was for ten days, finally giving Ariana the right to file an administrative appeal. Her appeal was heard on October 4, 2010, with Deputy Superintendent Shelly Marsh serving as the Hearing Officer. On October 5, 2010, Mr. Marsh informed Ariana that her appeal was denied, she would not be allowed to attend Clayton High School for the remainder of the academic school year, and she was being sent to an “alternative school” (South Campus Community High School) instead. However, if Ariana wears her nose stud at South Campus, she will be disciplined for violating the Johnston County Schools dress code policy, so Mr. Marsh’s ruling merely perpetuates the violations of the Iaconos’ civil rights. The lawsuit seeks a court order allowing Ariana to return to Clayton High School immediately, to be allowed to make up the work she has missed, and to suffer no further consequences for exercising her religious beliefs.

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