CORPUS CHRISTI – It was an emotional morning for the Gonzales family and family members in attendance at the U.S. District Courthouse in Corpus Christi last Thursday.
The family from Mathis was in court asking Judge Nelva Ramos to consider an injunction that would allow Cesar and Diego Gonzales to participate in Mathis ISD extracurricular activities.
Gonzales v. Mathis Independent School District states that the brothers have been barred for the past two years from playing on their school’s football team or participating in academic clubs because of a religious promise they have kept since birth.
Cesar and Diego leave a small part of their hair uncut and braided, a religious promise known as a promesa they have kept since infancy.
The boys’ parents asked them if they wanted to, they could abandon the promise the parents made and could cut their hair if they wished. The boys, feeling that the promesa was still important in their lives, decided to continue leaving the long braids in their hair.
Although the school’s dress code forbids male students from having hair past the collar, the school district granted an exemption to the boys from kindergarten through sixth grade, and they participated in school activities with no problem.
But when they entered seventh grade in 2017 at Mathis Middle School, Cesar and Diego Gonzales were told that their religious practice would no longer be accommodated. They are now freshmen at Mathis High School.
On May 30, 2018, the Gonzales family sued the Mathis ISD on behalf of their sons, arguing that the school’s stubborn adherence to their grooming code imposed a burden on the family’s religious practice.
This is a religious practice, not a religious belief, which is what most people have been confused about.
At Thursday’s hearing, the boys were questioned under oath along with their mother, Belen, who took the stand first. It was at this time that the boys were escorted out of the courtroom.
During questioning, attorney Dennis J. Eichelbaum questioned her promises to God, such as being married and making a promise to God to stay married, which she didn’t as she’s divorced. Eichelbaum also tried multiple times to get the case dismissed due to some deadline issues of when MISD was served court papers.
Later, Belen was emotional as her sons took the stand for intense questioning about their beliefs and why they wanted the injunction passed.
Cesar simply said he wanted to play football and the season was about to begin, and he didn’t want to miss a game. But for the younger Diego, he recalled how excited he was to make the UIL science team at MISD, only to be told he wouldn’t be able to participate until he cut his hair.
Through tears he simply answered the question, “I just want to do science.”
After the hearing, which lasted more than an hour, Judge Ramos said she needed time to consider all the evidence and statements brought forth and said she would soon reach decision on the injunction.
Just a few hours later, the religious organization Becket, which hired international law firm Kirkland & Ellis to represent the family along with attorney Frank Gonzales, sent a press release stating that the family won a major victory in their quest to let their boys join extracurricular sports and clubs while keeping a strand of hair uncut and braided as a sign of faith.
Today’s federal court decision grants the family’s request for a religious accommodation allowing participation in extracurriculars while the case proceeds.
“After two years of needless bullying of students of faith, it’s now clear that the school district is breaking the law,” Becket Vice President and Executive Director Montserrat Alvarado said in the release. “Mathis Independent School District should stop this foolish fight and do the right thing.
“It is unacceptable to keep children from doing what they love because of their religious beliefs,” Alvarado said. “Mathis ISD should follow the law and respect these students’ religious beliefs.”
While it sounds like a clear-cut victory for Becket and the Gonzales family, it was not so.
“The judge granted our motion for one of the boys, Diego, and for Cesar she didn’t grant it yet, but she has not denied the motion either,” Kirkland & Ellis attorney Jamie Aycock said. “She asked for some additional information.”
Both parties were invited to submit additional evidence and briefings on Monday, which they did.
“I think we should win,” he added. “You can never predict exactly what will happen, but the school district has no substantive defenses here. They didn’t bring any witnesses; they didn’t provide any evidence – they just have this technical defense that we think they should lose.
“Even if they were to win, the absolute worst-case scenario will be that somehow the case is dismissed for Cesar, and we just re-file after serving notice, and we are confident the school district will lose because they don’t have any good reason for them not to participate in extracurriculars.”
Eichelbaum said he filed a motion to reconsider the decision on Monday and that MISD has the option to file an immediate appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“You understand the problem for the school district, don’t you?” Eichelbaum asked. “If any child at any time can say they made a promise to God, then there can be no rules at the school.
“If someone says they made a promise to God that they wouldn’t take this test today, are we violating their constitutional rights because they said they made a promise to God? We can’t sit and distinguish which one is sincere and which one is just trying to get out of a test.
“So it means no dress codes; it means no hair codes. You can’t discipline someone for bullying if they said I made a promise to God I would do this.
“It would be complete anarchy. That’s what the plaintiffs want.
“That’s what the court doesn’t realize – they’re setting up the school for anarchy.”
Aycock said the next thing that will happen is that the case will go forward, and he will either win a motion for summary judgment or the case will go to trial.
“But right now we’re just focused on getting the boys to participate in extracurriculars,” he added.
“We are now counsel in the case, along with attorney Frank Gonzales, and plan to go forward.
“Our hope is that the school district at some point will realize that it’s a losing battle, but they haven’t really seemed to wise up on that. They seem intent on punishing these boys.”