RALEIGH, N.C. – A North Carolina high school student can wear the nose piercing that's part of her religious faith under the terms of a legal settlement announced Monday.
Clayton High School freshman Ariana Iacono was suspended last fall after showing up for class with a tiny stud in her nose, which she says reflects her beliefs as a member of the Church of Body Modification.
The school dress code prohibits facial piercings, but in October, a federal judge ruled that Iacono should be allowed to return to school, piercing and all. She's been attending class since that decision, pending a resolution of the case.
School officials initially decided to fight but chose to settle after weighing the costs of pursuing the matter in court, according to a written statement provided by a district spokeswoman.
"Engaging in a lengthy and costly lawsuit would have directed much-needed funding away from our classrooms," Superintendent Ed Croom said.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Iacono and her mother in the case, said the settlement was a vindication of the family's right to determine its own religious practice.
"We've believed from the beginning that the Constitution protects a parent's right to direct his or her child's religious upbringing," said ACLU Legal Director Katy Parker. "We're very happy with the settlement."
Under the terms of the resolution, Iacono can wear the nose stud as long as she remains a member of the Church of Body Modification, a little-known religious group that claims about 3,500 adherents nationwide and considers practices like tattooing and body piercing to be elements of spiritual practice.
Her disciplinary record will also be wiped clean, and she'll be allowed to retake an honors science class she missed during her lengthy suspension in the fall. The district also has to pay $15,000 in attorney fees and court costs.
Johnston County school officials say the settlement is narrow in scope and that the school board hasn't repealed its dress code or its general ban on facial piercings.
"The board reserves the right to deny any request for a religious exemption to its dress code if granting the exemption would result in a substantial disruption at school or adversely affect the health and safety of students," the district's statement read.
But according to the consent order filed in U.S. district court, starting this fall, the board has to revise its dress code to make it clear that school officials can't determine whether a student's religious beliefs are central to that religion's teachings, as currently spelled out in the policy, but only whether they're sincerely held. It also requires the district to give students more ability to show that their religious beliefs are sincere.
The Iaconos and their Raleigh-based minister, Richard Ivey, said part of the problem last fall was that school officials dismissed the Church of Body Modification faith as not a real religion.
"Obviously we'd like them to apologize, but we've been tied up in court with this for months now, so quite honestly, we'll take what we can get," Ivey said. "This was always about Ariana's right to go to school and practice her religion, and she's got both those things now."