Court Allows Johnston County Honor Student To Return To Classes

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org 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. “We are very pleased with Judge Howard’s ruling today,” 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. There is no reason she shouldn’t be allowed to resume her studies while this lawsuit is pending.” 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. The judge’s temporary restraining order as well as other court papers filed in this case will be posted on the ACLU-NCLF’s website at www.acluofnorthcarolina.org . BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Ariana Iacono 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. 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 ACLU-NCLF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Nikki and Ariana Iacono in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on Wednesday, October 6, 2010, alleging repeated violations of the family’s constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. That lawsuit is still pending.