Courts uphold teen's piercing, religious license plates

October 13, 2010

(RNS) Two federal courts have issued strong defenses of religious
expression in two separate decisions, one involving a teenager's nose
piercing and the other a license plate.

Ariana Iacono, a freshman at Clayton (N.C.) High School, was allowed
to return to class on Friday (Oct. 8) after missing more than four weeks
of school for wearing a small nose stud that violated the school dress
code.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of
Iacono, claiming that the school was violating her right to religious
freedom as a member of the Church of Body Modification.

"We are thrilled that Ariana can return to her studies," said Nikki
Iacono, Ariana's mother, in a statement from the ACLU. "She has missed
22 days of school already this year because the school has wrongfully
forced her to choose between her education and our family's religion.
Ariana was an honor roll student in middle school, and she is eager to
get back to her classes and continue with her education as soon as
possible."

The Iacono family belongs to the Church of Body Modification, which
believes rituals such as tattoos and piercings are essential to
spirituality and connect followers to the divine.

The emergency court order by U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard
will allow Iacono to attend school while the lawsuit continues on the
constitutional questions raised by her case.

Meanwhile, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday reversed
a lower court decision that supported a Vermont statute that prohibited
religious messages on vanity license plates.

Shawn Byrne of West Rutland applied for a personalized license plate
with the letters and numbers "JN36TN" referring to the Bible verse John
3:16. A month later, the DMV denied his application because the message
was "deemed to be a combination that refers to deity," according to a
statement from the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed suit on behalf of
Byrne in 2005.

DMV officials had earlier allowed "GENESIS" and "CREED" on vanity
plates as long as they refer to musical groups and not biblical
allusions, and "GODDESS" and "BUDDHA" were acceptable as a reference to
a nickname.

"Christians shouldn't be censored from expressing their beliefs
while others are freely allowed to express theirs," said David Cortman,
senior counsel at Alliance Defense Fund. "The 2nd Circuit rightly
concluded that it's unconstitutional for the government to decide that
car owners can only identify who they are and what they believe on
personalized plates if their identity and beliefs are nonreligious."