MATHIS – National religious group Becket, whose slogan is “Religious Freedom for All,” sent a letter to Mathis ISD trustees and Superintendent Benny Hernandez along with an press release titled “Becket to Texas school: Stop bullying boys for their faith.”
Becket sent the letter to the school district on Monday referring to the litigation from Pedro and Belen Gonzales against MISD on behalf of their two children, Cesar and Diego, who are not being allowed to participate in any University Interscholastic League (UIL) interschool competition including sports and clubs. The reason is that they refuse to cut a long strand of braided hair each possesses.
When Cesar was an infant, he contracted a serious illness, and his parents made a religious promise to keep a strand of hair uncut if he recovered, which they called an expression of faith and gratitude.
When their youngest son Diego was born, they decided to keep a piece of his hair uncut as, according to Becket, “a deeply important and personal part of their religious faith. As they grew older, both boys continued to keep a small strand of their hair uncut, committed to living out their family’s sacred practice.”
According to court documents, the parents said that the hair was “an expression or exercise of their faith and heritage, and in a promise (promesa) to God, the parents have kept a strand of hair on the back of the children’s heads uncut since birth.
“More recently, the children have adopted that promise as their own affirmation of faith and heritage and continue to maintain the single long braid down their backs.
“However, the parents admit that the promise is not dictated by the Catholic religion, and they could change it at any time.”
Cesar testified that it was his parents that made the promise when he was sick as a child, but if they took back the promise he would cut his hair and play football.
Court documents stated, “Now, (Cesar) considers the promise to be his to keep as well as theirs, and if he cut the hair, he would disappoint Jesus or get punished.”
Diego testified that his braid represents his faith in God. He said it started out as his parents’ promise, but it became his as well, and breaking the promise would be a sin.
It didn’t appear to be a major issue until August 2017 when the brothers were told they could no longer participate in UIL activities. At the time, they boys were participating in football, the robotics team and student government.
According to the Student Handbook, all males must cut their hair so as not to touch the eyebrows in front or extend beyond the top of the collar of a standard shirt in back and may not exceed the top of the ear on the sides. The hair may not be pinned, curled or gelled up to avoid the rule.
Becket claimed in a statement that Cesar’s grades suffered when he wasn’t allowed to participate in band performances – a core part of the academic band grade.
According to the religious group, “The school’s coaching staff even told Cesar, ‘All it takes is a quick snip of the scissors for you to get your football equipment.’”
The family appealed to the school board but were denied.
On May 30, 2018, the Gonzales parents sued the MISD, arguing that the school’s stubborn adherence to their grooming code imposed a burden on the family’s religious practice. The case was heard in district court and in December was granted in part and denied in part.
The court denied the parent’s claims for violation of their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and freedom of expression, but may proceed on plaintiffs’ claims for violation of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA) and their rights under the 14th Amendment.
On Feb. 1, district courts denied the school district’s motion to reconsider the case but were denied.
On Monday, the Becket letter was sent, complete with an ultimatum – “If you do not reach a settlement by Aug. 12, we are prepared to bring substantial additional resources to bear in this litigation.”
The letter also contained two major claims which read, “We have won multiple cases in Texas and the Fifth Circuit under the laws at issue in your case, and we are undefeated in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Although we are not currently representing the Gonzales family, we are nationally recognized experts in this area of the law, and we strongly urge you to settle this case and respect these students’ rights for two reasons:
“(1) You will lose this case. As explained below, the law is clear, and the school district will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if it does not respect these students’ religious liberty.
“(2) It is the right thing to do. Religious liberty is a fundamental human right, and the school district should set an example for its students of respecting human dignity.”
The Mathis school superintendent said that the district has nothing to hide, that the case files are out there in the public, and it’s all up to the lawyers now.
“The case is ongoing so, from our perspective, we really can’t say much about it because it’s already in the lawyers’ hands,” Hernandez said.
“The only thing I can really say is that the lawyers are handling it, and we’ll see what happens.
“We don’t have much to say now.”