Memorial Beads or Gang Symbol? Student Suspended for Wearing Rosary

Raymond Hosier, a 13-year-old Schenectady, New York, boy, is gearing up to file a federal suit against his middle school after he was repeatedly suspended for wearing a rosary, which he says is in memory of his older brother who died in a bike accident.

Hosier said he has worn the rosary since September, but in the last week was suspended three times, most recently on Monday, when he arrived at school with the beads outside his shirt.

"When I wear the rosary beads," Hosier says, "my brother's memory is alive." His brother, Joey Hosier, was holding the rosary when he died.

But officials at Oneida Middle School say the district's code of conduct clearly states that beads worn outside of the shirt are forbidden.

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"Beads are often identifiers for gangs," says Karen Corona, who handles communications for the Schenectady City School District. "The code of conduct is entirely about keeping students safe. Unfortunately, we live in an area where we need to do that. We try to take every step possible to keep the displays out of school."

Corona declined to address the specifics of Hosier's case.

Hosier says he has worn the beads for the entire school year and was only recently asked to tuck them inside of his shirt. When he refused, he was suspended -- twice last week and again on Monday, he says.

"I feel that it's not right to suspend me because I have my own rights to wear my rosaries and they are taking away my religious rights to wear what I remember about my family members," he says. "I told them I wasn't in a gang, and that purple is not a gang color."

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Hosier is being represented by the conservative American Center for Law & Justice, which has argued several cases nationally involving freedom of speech and religion.

The lawyers are planning to file a suit in federal court claiming the school violated Hosier's constitutional rights to free speech.

In a letter to school officials the lawyers write, "Raymond's rosary is a form of symbolic speech. Raymond has a First Amendment right to continue to wear his Rosary to school."

Experts on such cases believe that Raymond could well win his case. Across the country, as schools are cracking down on gang activities, students are filing more and more challenges to protect their freedom of expression.

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Critics Say Rosary Ban Defies 'Common Sense'

"There are religious liberty issues in a case like this as well as freedom of speech issues," says Charles C. Haynes of the First Amendment Center. "I think school districts are overreacting in banning things they think might be harmful or related to gang violence."

Haynes says the school district has to show real evidence of a connection between the beads and gang violence and says the case becomes more of a challenge for the school when the expression in question has religious significance.

"The school has to do more than just saying it is related to gang-related activity," Haynes says. "They have to show that this is going to cause disruption in the school and this is a real problem in the community."

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Ed White, a lawyer representing Hosier, points out that a federal judge in Texas ruled on a similar case in 1997. The judge ruled in favor of students who wanted to wear glow-in-the-dark rosaries that the school thought might be gang symbols.

Last year a federal judge in New York also found against a school's code of conduct.

"It comes to a point where you have to apply some common sense," White says. "Common sense is not being applied in Schenectady."

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