RALEIGH, N.C. —A soft-spoken 14-year-old's nose piercing has landed her a suspension from school and forced her into the middle of a fight over her First Amendment right to exercise her religion.
Ariana Iacono says she just wants to be a normal teenager at Clayton High School, about 15 miles southeast of Raleigh. She has been suspended because her nose ring violates the Johnston County school system's dress code.
"I think it's kind of stupid for them to kick me out of school for a nose piercing," she said. "It's in the First Amendment for me to have freedom of religion."
Iacono and her mother, Nikki, belong to the Church of Body Modification, a small group unfamiliar to rural North Carolina, but one with a clergy, a statement of beliefs and a formal process for accepting new members.
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It's enough to draw the interest of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has contacted school officials with concerns that the rights of the Iaconos are being violated by the suspension.
The Iaconos say the school system is ignoring its own dress code policy, which allows exemptions on religious grounds. The effect, Nikki Iacono, 32, says, is that Johnston County school officials are setting themselves up as judges of what constitutes a "real" religion.
"We pretty much flat-out asked them, what guidelines are you following? What do you need to establish a sincere religious belief?," she said. "We were told that if we were Hindu, or she were Muslim, it would be different."
Last week, after her first suspension ended, Ariana went back to school with her mother — and her nose ring. She was suspended again, this time for five days. If she comes back to school on Tuesday with the nose stud, she'll face a 10-day suspension or referral to "alternative schooling," Nikki Iacono said.
A Johnston County schools spokeswoman declined to comment on the situation, saying it's against the law to publicly discuss a particular student's disciplinary matters.
Richard Ivey, the Iaconos' Raleigh-based minister in the church, believes it's a case of officials dismissing something unfamiliar.
"They're basically saying, because they don't agree and because they choose not to respect our beliefs, that it can't be a sincerely held religious belief," he said.
Ivey describes the church as a non-theistic faith that draws people who see tattoos, piercings and other physical alterations as ways of experiencing the divine.
"We don't worship the god of body modification or anything like that," he said. "Our spirituality comes from what we choose to do ourselves. Through body modification, we can change how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about the world."
The church claims roughly 3,500 members nationwide, having started about two years ago, after adopting the name of a similar group that had been dormant for several years.
Sally Gordon, a professor who focuses on constitutional law and religious issues at the University of Pennsylvania, said schools have the right to issue neutral rules on dress as long as there's a good reason for it and it does not target a specific religion. But she said the school district could run into a problem with its religious exemption.
The Johnston County schools dress code policy prohibits several types of facial jewelry but does allow officials to make accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs.
"One of the remarkable things about religious freedom is that people have all kinds of beliefs that look to others as bizarre but make internal sense to them," Gordon said. "We really can only claim to be a country that respects religious liberty if we respect the variety of beliefs that exist in the country — both new and old."
The Iaconos have contacted the North Carolina ACLU chapter for help, and legal director Katy Parker says the school is on shaky ground.
"We do think she has a right to wear her nose ring," Parker said.
Students' free expression rights are limited at schools, but Parker believes a legal category known as a "hybrid right" overrules those curbs. Essentially, the Iaconos are arguing that Ariana's right to free expression and Nikki's right to raise her daughter as she wishes are being abridged.