Friday, September 17, 2010
A 14-year-old girl has been suspended twice from school in North Carolina for her nose piercing, which she claims violates her First Amendment right to exercise her religion. Ariana Iacono and her mother, Nikki, belong to the Church of Body Modification, a small group with a clergy, a statement of beliefs and a formal process for accepting new members. The school states that she is in violation of its dress code.
The American Civil Liberties Union believes that she has the right to wear her nose ring and has contacted school officials with concerns about her religious rights. The school's policy does allow exemptions to the dress code on religious grounds. Ariana's mother asserts that school officials are judging what constitutes a "real" religion. "We pretty much flat-out asked them, what guidelines are you following? What do you need to establish a sincere religious belief?," she said. "We were told that if we were Hindu, or she were Muslim, it would be different."
Richard Ivey, the Iaconos' minister, says,"They're basically saying, because they don't agree and because they choose not to respect our beliefs, that it can't be a sincerely held religious belief." He describes the church as a non-theistic faith that draws people who see tattoos, piercings and other physical alterations as ways of experiencing the divine. "We don't worship the god of body modification or anything like that," he said. "Our spirituality comes from what we choose to do ourselves. Through body modification, we can change how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about the world." The two-year old church claims 3,500 members nationwide.
Sally Gordon, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who focuses on Constitutional law and religious issues, says schools have the right to issue rules on dress as long as there's a good reason and no specific religion is targeted. "One of the remarkable things about religious freedom is that people have all kinds of beliefs that look to others as bizarre but make internal sense to them," Gordon said. "We really can only claim to be a country that respects religious liberty if we respect the variety of beliefs that exist in the country — both new and old."
The ACLU, like the Iaconos and their minister, hope the issue can be resolved without going to court. Meanwhile, Nikki and Ariana pick up schoolwork for her to do at home while her peers sit in class. "I hope they're going to stop suspending me and clear some of these absences from my record," Ariana said. "I want to get into a good college."
You would think that with all the really important issues going on in the world, a teenager's jewelry would be small cause for concern. The fact that it is goes beyond petty control issues and sounds the death knell for individuality in our society. And that to me is the real tragedy.