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Piercing Politics: Religious Garb and Secularism in Public Schools

40 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2012 Last revised: 28 Jun 2012

Priti Nemani, J.D.

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: Spring 2012


In Iacono v. Johnston County School Board, a 2010 case dealing with the suspension of a high school freshman, Ariana Iacono wore a nose piercing to her public high school in observance of her religious membership with the Church of Body Modification. In this recent case, a federal district court granted Ms. Iacono a temporary restraining order enjoining the school board from further suspending her, reasoning that Ms. Iacono’s claims had a strong likelihood of success on the merits, especially with regard to her claim that the policy violated her right to freely exercise her religious beliefs under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Iacono case sets the stage for the remainder of the Article, which grapples with the question of where the line should be drawn between secularism and free exercise of religion in public schools. The Article discusses relevant religious garb cases in Free Exercise Clause jurisprudence and sets forth additional arguments ultimately not used by the Iacono plaintiffs, such as a potential violation of the Free Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Following the review of jurisprudence and potential arguments in litigating in issue like that in Iacono, the Article widens the scope of the issue by discussing empirical findings relating to policies similar to the dress code employed by Johnston County. The empirical findings arise from a survey of dress code policies maintained by the largest public school district in each state in the U.S. Although the sampling size is limited, the data provides an understanding – albeit, a bird’s-eye view of the issue – of how strong the likelihood for a situation similar to the Iacono case to arise in other parts of the country. After relaying these empirical findings to establish the widespread nature of the religious apparel issue in public schools, the Article will discuss how schools may better arm themselves to tackle the issue of religious garb by revising dress code policies and proposes a model religious apparel exemption. Ultimately, the issue of secularism in public education pays homage to the struggle of the Founding Fathers when creating the United States, but it is one that still warrants careful consideration, especially in our schools- the “marketplace of ideas.”

Keywords: Constitutional Law, First Amendment, Religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Public School, Race and Religion, Public Policy

Suggested Citation

Nemani, J.D., Priti, Piercing Politics: Religious Garb and Secularism in Public Schools (Spring 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Priti Nemani (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

No Address Available

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