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Patti Wigington

NC Settlement on Piercing As Religious Expression

By June 8, 2011

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A North Carolina case has been settled allowing a high school student to continue wearing the nose piercing that she claimed was part of her religious expression. The ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit on behalf of Clayton High School freshman Ariana Iacono and her mother, Nikki Iacono, after Ariana was suspended four times for wearing a small nose piercing "as a fundamental expression of the religion which both she and her mother practice." The lawsuit claimed that "the school's refusal to grant a religious exemption to their dress code policy violated the Iaconos' constitutional rights to religious freedom."

Although the financial specifics of the settlement aren't available, Ariana will be permitted to return to school with her piercing, her record will be wiped clean, and she'll be allowed to retake a class which she failed while out of school under suspension. More importantly, the school's dress code policy will be amended so that school officials aren't put in a position of having to figure out which practices might be part of religious doctrine and which ones are not. Consequently, "students will be given more leeway in demonstrating that their religious beliefs are sincere."

Ariana and her mother are members of the Church of Body Modification, a religious group that promotes "ancient and modern body modification rites ... to strengthen the bond between mind, body and soul".

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June 9, 2011 at 8:40 am
(1) Nikki says:

I don’t particularly agree with this one, myself. It’s one thing to fight to be able to wear a particular necklace or something that’s generally allowed by dress code, but yours is banned, or a t-shirt, etc. However, if everyone could gain exceptions to dress code for religious reasons, then what would be the point of having a code in the first place? It could easily spin out of control, because who’s to say what is or isn’t valid religious expression?

Not that I have anything against pircings, I wear a nose stud myself. However, I wear a clear quartz retainer to work, because that’s the dress code. I have no problems with piercings being allowed at a high school, but I think if one can have one, all should be able to.

Just my two cents.

June 9, 2011 at 3:17 pm
(2) Sha says:

“However, if everyone could gain exceptions to dress code for religious reasons, then what would be the point of having a code in the first place? It could easily spin out of control, because who’s to say what is or isn’t valid religious expression?”

Exactly. Who’s to say what is or isn’t valid religious expression?

To you it might seem ridiculous to say that piercings are an integral part of your religion, but I’m sure that there are people who would say that it’s ridiculous to cast spells as a part of religion, or to worship multiple gods, or to worship any god other than “The One True God.”

You don’t mind wearing a clear quartz retainer, but it’s not a central part or your religion to do otherwise. Perhaps you would feel differently if you weren’t allowed to wear something that’s important to your religion.

And really, I don’t see what’s so different about wearing a t-shirt being okay as a part of religious expression even if it would normally violate the dress code than a piercing for religious expression.

So yeah, things might spin out of control if you let just anyone break the rules for their religion, but if you say one person can break the rules for their religion, but this other person can’t, just because you don’t understand or agree with the religion, you open the way for all kinds of religious discrimination.

June 9, 2011 at 3:18 pm
(3) Sha says:


I’m sure at least some people used the same “It could easily spin out of control, because who’s to say what is or isn’t valid religious expression?” argument to prevent non-monotheistic religions from being represented during prayer before meetings (though I would argue that any prayer whatsoever is discriminatory, because how exactly would an atheist get their fair time?).

If you’re going to let one religion break the rules for religious expression, then you have to let them all.

Now, does that mean I think there shouldn’t be limits? No, of course not. If someone says that they need to come to school naked for religious expression, or they need to assault this fellow classmate for religious expression, obviously that’s different, but it should be about keeping the school a safe environment conducive to learning, not about letting the religions you get run free while stopping the ones you don’t.

As far as this specific case goes? I really don’t know how I feel, but it’s not my place to say that that religion isn’t valid just because I don’t get it.

Sorry this was so ridiculously long…

June 9, 2011 at 7:47 pm
(4) Nikki says:

I’m sorry if I came across that way, but I absolutely don’t think it’s a ridiculous form of religious expression. I’m all for expressing yourself, religiously or otherwise. I was only talking about how this student is now allowed to wear a nose stud, but nobody else can because it’s not part of their religion.

The t-shirt thing was just an example: if, say, a Christian were allowed to wear a religious t-shirt but a Pagan were not, I’m all for fighting for it. Same goes for a cross necklace vs a pentacle, star of David, etc.

Say a young Pagan tells her school that she should be allowed to wear a shorter skirt than dress code allows because she feels cloth blocks her power and she tries to live a magical life at all times. Should she be the only girl in school allowed to wear a miniskirt, even if she honestly wholeheartedly believes her reason valid? I’m just saying there’s a thin line there. I do agree that my piercings are not a form of religious expression for me, and therefore my situation is very different. I’m just saying there are ways to keep your piercing and meet dress code policy at the same time.

I do apologize for any confusion, and I definitely respect your opinion on the matter as well. =)

June 14, 2011 at 11:43 am
(5) Angelique says:

What constitutes valid religious expression? They (those that tend to regulate or govern such laws) tend to go by the standards of whichever established group you belong. Your religion or belief has to be established and recognized. So, if you belong to a recognized belief system and it is within their practices to do nose piercings then they have to allow you to do so; because it is your constitutional right to practice your belief (in whatever manner that belief prescribes). You cannot just go all willy nilly and start doing random things and claim it is a part of your religion. It has to have already been established by the religion as being part of the religion.

June 16, 2011 at 1:13 am
(6) Sha says:

Except, according to the article, the girls mother “offered evidence to support her claim that this was a sincerely held religious belief,” which means this was within their belief system.

As to whether it was a “recognized” belief system, I’m not so sure it matters. Religious freedom (at least, I’m under the impression) means all religions, not just the popular ones.

June 16, 2011 at 1:17 am
(7) Sha says:

Except, according to the article, the girls mother “offered evidence to support her claim that this was a sincerely held religious belief,” so it was within the practices of her belief system.

As for whether or not it was a “recognized” religion, I’m not so sure it matters. Religious freedom (I’m under the impression) means all religions – not just the popular ones.

June 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm
(8) Josie says:

I agree, express your religion on your own time! School is not the place for that. If others are allowed a necklace or a t shirt with symbolism and one group is excluded that is one thing but changing the rules for every person with one idea just creates chaos.

June 16, 2011 at 1:04 am
(9) Sha says:

But *why* is it one thing for some people to violate the dress code by wearing “a necklace or a t shirt with symbolism” when “one group is excluded,” but it’s not okay to change the rules for this other person?

If I didn’t know better, it would almost sound as though you would support allowing a student to break the rules on the grounds of religious expression if it were for a religion you understood and accepted, but not for a religion that you don’t get.

As for whether or not it creates chaos, I don’t really know. But if that’s a concern then the clear answer is to not allow exceptions for anyone – even people from a more mainstream faith. You can’t allow some people to break the rules for their religion and not others.

June 9, 2011 at 7:23 pm
(10) beatrice says:

during my initiation, i had my ears double pierced. i wear small white gold hoops. they have never been out of my ears except for an xray. and i felt bad about that.

i can relate to a piercing being a form of religious expression. one job i had, the big district super was coming in, dress code said one pair of earrings. my immediate super came and told me to remove my hoops. i said no. she demanded that i remove them, stating that they were against said code because they were the second row.

i was in complete compliance with the code. but it escalted till the big wig got there and was drawn into the drama.

he said i was in compliance as there was one pair, and they were smaller than a dime.

June 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm
(11) Kathy says:

This is a problem thats happening not only in the US but in other parts of the world as well. In France the government has passed a law that women can no longer go out in Burka’s that conceal their identity. Many devout Muslims are protesting the law, and truthfully the real problem is that both sides have a point. The French government sais that its importatn possible even critical that officals be able to identify individuals by sight should the event arise. For example should a person dress up in a burka and go on a shooting spree and then dissapear into a croud. What would wittnesses say when asked? How would you properly identify the suspect? Was it a man or woman? Were they old or young? Whate race were they? How much did they weigh? Any identifying marks? Just because they were wearing a burka dosent mean that they are automatically a Muslim femal of Middle Eastern orgin. After all one year I dressed up as Superman and I am not a 6’3 male with blue eyes and black hair who can fly and hails from a planet called Crypton!

June 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm
(12) Kathy says:

At the same time the devout Muslims believe that it shames both the woman and the man if their females are put on display. So much so that in some countries a woman can be killed for showing her wrist and ankle much less her face. This is a well known religious tennant of the Muslim faith and the Muslim community is railing against such laws. In such a case who is in the right. There is really no other way for the Muslim community to express this facet of their faith. Which I see so many people recomend doing when confronted with a unusual religious requirement in the States. No would it really be resonable for the French government to allow a porton of its populace to walk around effectively disguised whenever out in public. Which is the opposing argument that all religious expression be sanctioned that I witness so often.
The fact is that sometimes someone is going to be hurt. What we are ignoring and really need to pay attention to is how we are going to deal with that when it inevetably happenes. It hasent happened yet in the US but I can see it comming.

June 14, 2011 at 9:47 am
(13) Tamarant says:

I don’t agree with this one…… the Church of Body Modification???? Is this for real???? I’m all for freedon of expression, but – - – - this seems to be a LITTLE stretch for religious expression. I would never have signed for my daughters at that age, that being said, my 23 y.o. daughter now has a nose piercing . To allow this for your 14-15 y.o. daughter for the purposes of religious expression…. NO WAY!
Also, there are reasons for rules in schools; would you allow a student to go to school nude under the guise of religious freedom??

June 14, 2011 at 11:01 am
(14) pgnbri says:

Freedom of Religion means *all* religions. Not just the ones that make sense to you. I’m sure there are people out there who would think that what you believe and practice is “a LITTLE stretch for religious expression” I don’t think any of us really want to go down that path…

I had never heard of this church, nor does it strike me as something I’d be inclined to. But that does not make it invalid.

June 16, 2011 at 1:18 am
(15) Sha says:

Very well said

June 14, 2011 at 10:00 am
(16) Kourtnee says:

i think this is a little funny in the sense that, i went to a high school with over 6,000 students in four buildings.
i myself regularly wore bikini tops under fishnet shirts with miniskirts, spikes and chains for the fun of it!
with so many kids in so many places, and constantly moving around, teachers and security guards could hardly keep up with dress code rules!!

as such, i’m a little out of touch with a small (probably rural…?) high school in north carolina.
piercings honestly freak ME out, but anyone at my school would just say, whatever.
[i love having gone to a big school =)]

June 14, 2011 at 11:56 am
(17) Angelique says:

It seems to me that this church is one of those complementary ideals that accompany a faith although I am likely mistaken. Body modification DOES have roots and origins in faiths and history around the world. Many people feel spiritually connected with their mods. Suspension is a good example of one that many say bring them a spiritual feeling. Most people I know in the bod mod community, myself included, have reasons and connections for each one of their mods. Do not discount these people just because their ideals don’t make sense to you.

June 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm
(18) Silver Thunderbird says:

This one is tough for me, because I can clearly see both sides of the fence, but having typically played ‘Devil’s Advocate’ on almost every debate I’ve encountered, this one is still tough. I have no problem with piercings, or body mod, or any religion at all. And I sincerely mean that…. however, there’s also regulations put into effect on the private sector, schools, businesses, groups, that state a required code. I feel personally, that its unfair to the young lady in question, to allow her to keep her stud in during school. As someone said before, there are retainers that fall within the school’s policy that she could use to comply. I wouldn’t say she shouldn’t be allowed to have the piercing – no school should be allowed to tell you h ow you should or shouldn’t modify your body – but it should be allowed to state when and where an item of jewelry is allowed. How is she going to react as an adult when she’s a lawyer and her law firm requires no nose piercings in the office or in court? is she going to give up her last 10 years of law school and leave based on the belief that she should be allowed to wear it regardless of a dress code?

June 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm
(19) Silver Thunderbird says:

My religious beliefs are quite open to body modifications, as well as jewelry and tattoos. However, none are required by my faith to ‘believe’. Kathy mentioned the muslims in France, the difference there, is that its a requirement by the faith that women are covered. I find it hard to believe that the Church of Body Modification REQUIRES their 14 year old female members to wear a nose stud to school. To me, its a different debate. If they do require a minor to have any kind of body modification, then perhaps it should be investigated for legitimacy. However,,,, if it is, she could have chosen a tattoo in a place that is covered by clothing, or a piercing in a different place, such as her helix, which being ears may be accepted by the dress code. I can believe easily she was quite aware of the dress code before she got the piercing. I see this as a blatant disrespect for the system, sadly by both her and her mother. A responsible mother would explain to their daughter that there are rules in society she should follow.

June 14, 2011 at 6:29 pm
(20) Kathy says:

Hello Thunderbird.

I just read your post and I just want to say that I understood the difference between the requirements in each case. I was using the French Muslims as an example of a similar situation in the extreme. Alot of people I talked to about the piercing situation simply could care less who won or who lost because in the end to them, its just a piercing. I thought people needed to see what this kind of situation could eventually become under diffrent cirumstances. And in doing so encourage them to actually care and pay attention.

June 16, 2011 at 1:30 am
(21) Sha says:

But the school had a provision in place for exemptions for religious expression, and her mother tried to go through the proper pathways and was told that her religions wasn’t considered valid, and so an exemption would not be made for Ariana and she would be suspended.

It would be one thing if no one was allowed an exemption, but the school can’t say that the kids from the religions they are familiar with can break the rules, but not the kids from a religion they don’t get.

As for being aware of the dress code against facial piercings… well they send out those handbooks for people to read and sign papers saying that they have in fact read them, but I know that plenty of people don’t. Someone who didn’t read it carefully might not expect a rule against that (plenty of schools don’t have a rule about that, and the dress code when I was in high school was always full of weird little rules that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t read the handbook).

June 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm
(22) Silver Thunderbird says:

As for the school official determining the church isn’t ‘valid’, it’s not up to anyone to determine what is a valid belief or not, that’s up to the individual. However, I would imagine he would have said to any christian or pagan or jewish student that came into school with a cross, pentacle, or star of david nose stud, that the form of expression is against school dress code. And frankly, I’d stand behind him.

June 16, 2011 at 1:36 am
(23) Sha says:

Your example kind of misses the point, I think.

For the students in yoru example, it’s the symbol on the piece of jewelry that is meaningful. It doesn’t matter if the the symbol is on a nose stud or a necklace, so why should the school allow them to wear forbidden nose jewelry just because it has a religious symbol on it (especially since I don’t believe wearing the symbol is an integral part of their faiths. The same is not true for Ariana)? It’s not the piercing that’s an expression of their religion, it’s the symbol.

For the girl in the article, it’s the piercing itself that is an expression of her beliefs. There’s no symbol that could just as easily be worn as a pendant, the meaning is in the piercing itself.

June 15, 2011 at 7:11 am
(24) Mia says:

I think the school should have made a special exception just for the girl, and not gone through the trouble of this.
Other students are most assuredly going to take advantage of this new rule, and not in the good way.
On the other hand, the reason she was meant to remove her piercing is probably because of gym: students in gym class must remove all piercings, because if they get caught on something, they could get torn off easily.
If it was that big of a deal to the girl and her mother, they really should have done it quietly, because now the school will have to contend with ridiculous things under the guise of “religious expression”.

June 17, 2011 at 8:35 pm
(25) freeluna says:

One could argue that any religious expression at school is problematic. I would hate to be the school official who has to adjudicate this particular situation. The COBM is really pushing the cultural envelope, and while I can appreciate some of what they are doing, much of it shouldn’t be practiced by non-adults. As far as a simple nose-stud is concerned: I think that’s fairly benign, and it falls easily into the same range of acceptable dress as a head-scarf, religious pendant, what-have-you.

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