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.
“A child’s religious upbringing should be directed by her parents, not by government officials in the Johnston County school district,” said Jon Sasser, Chairman of the ACLU-NCLF’s Legal Committee and lead Cooperating Attorney on this case. “Ariana’s nose stud in no way poses a health or safety risk to her or to others, nor is she disrupting the learning environment or interfering with other students’ rights to receive an education. The school continues to violate Ariana’s and Nikki’s constitutional rights each and every day that Ariana is barred from practicing her religion by wearing a tiny nose stud.”
The Iaconos are represented by Katy Parker, Legal Director for the ACLU-NCLF, and Jon Sasser and Mary Kristen Kelly of Ellis & Winters in Raleigh, as Cooperating Attorneys for the ACLU-NCLF.