June 1, 2010 -- A federal judge says a New York school must reinstate a 13-year-old boy who was suspended for wearing rosary beads.
Raymond Hosier, of Schenectady, New York, filed a federal suit Tuesday against his middle school after he was repeatedly suspended for wearing the rosary, which he says is in memory of his older brother who died in a bike accident.
Hosier said he has worn it since September, but in May was suspended three times, most recently two weeks ago, 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 Oneida Middle School officials contend Raymond Hosier violated a policy banning gang-related clothing because the prayer beads sometimes are worn as gang symbols.
"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."
The American Center for Law and Justice filed a suit today in U.S. District Court contending the suspension violated Hosier's rights to free speech and religious expression.
Judge Lawrence Kahn ordered the Schenectady seventh-grader reinstated pending a June 11 hearing into whether the suspension violated the boy's civil rights.
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 -- three times in less than a month, 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."
In a letter to school officials the lawyers wrote, "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.
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."
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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report