Oregon's 2008 school policy on rosaries still unsettled

Oregon Faith News Note: Civil rights groups rushed to the defense of seventh-grader Raymond Hosier who was suspended from Oneida Middle School in NY for wearing rosary beads. Like school principals and superintendents in other states, including Texas, California, Oregon, and Virginia, Oneida officials say the no-rosary-beads rule is necessary to protect students from violence and gangs.

His principal deemed them a gang related symbol that violated school dress code. Raymond refused  to remove them. He claimed he was wearing them in memory of his brother who recently died in a bicycle accident clutching his own rosary.

The schools have a point, according to gang experts. After schools began banning gang-related bandanas, clothing, and hairstyles about a  a decade ago, students have turned to rosaries as a signal of gang allegiance under the First Amendment protections of free speech and religous expression.

Not much has changed since 2008, when Oregon was thrust into the middle of the controversy.

Never did 14 yr-old Jaime Salazar, in Hillsboro, Oregon, imagine that wearing a rosarylike crucifix to school would provoke a national stir. But when he and his 16-year-old friend Marco Castro were suspended for refusing to remove the religious beads because they were “gang-related,” it thrust the issue into the headlines and triggered questions over the evolving role of rosaries in religion, fashion and street gangs.

“It’s become part of the look,” said Victor Castro, a detective and school resource officer who haslead gang awareness training in Hillsboro, Ore. “They use it as a reminder of protection.”

At that time officials at South Albany High School were facing the same problems but policy prevented them from offering details about the suspensions because the boys were minors. But indicated there was “more to the story”.

Salazar attracted much attention on television and online, but it was not the first of its kind. A similar case involved two students in New Caney, Texas, who were prohibited from wearing rosaries because they were considered gang-related ended up in a court in 1997. The judge ruled in favor of the boys, calling the school policy vague.

Their adornment by violent gangs is an ironic twist for beads whose use in prayer is praised by Christians, including Pope Benedict XVI, as a means to access contemplative calm. The “Rosary” refers to a sequence of prayers and meditations on the life of Jesus.

Over a decade past the Texas case, and the controversy is still unsettled and gangs continue their tradition. Gangsters not only wear certain colors—reds for Bloods, blues for Crips, for example—they also arrange the beads to signal their rank in the gang. Now, Latino gangsters are the most frequent—and creative—wearers of rosaries. The Latin Kings, for example, use colors to signal members’ rank in the hierarchy—five black and five gold beads for members; two gold beads for top dogs. Assassins wear all black.

The Netas, an East Coast gang founded in Puerto Rico, wear 78 red, white and blue beads to symbolize the 78 towns in Puerto Rico. Prospective members wear all white beads until they join the gang.

Jared Lewis, a former police officer who now runs Know Gangs, a training group for law enforcement officials says he sympathizes with principals who are torn between respecting religious rights and preventing gang wars in their schools. “We live in a country where, obviously, people should be able to do and say what they want,” he said. “At the same time, if something happens on school grounds, the school principal is going to be held liable for not keeping students safe.”

The case is settled for the time being. U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence E. Kahn signed an order allowing Hosier to finish out the school year wearing his rosary.  The order gives time for the school to reevaluate its dress code policy.  Senior  counsel for the ACLJ, Ed White, is hopeful the board, with new members coming aboard on July 1, will rewrite that policy “so that not only Raymond but other students will no longer be harmed because they’re trying to exercise their religion in school.”

Click here to link to the 2008 article

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