A federal judge has ruled that a 15-year-old Texas girl must wear an identification badge to her high school for monitoring purposes or else face suspension.
US District Judge Orlando Garcia decided with a Tuesday ruling that John Jay High School student Andrea Hernandez has only two choices: be tracked from classroom-to-classroom or go somewhere else.
Hernandez, backed by the support of her parents and civil liberties groups alike, says she shouldn’t have to a wear an ID badge to school, particularly the kind that’s embedded with RFID chips to track the movements of students. San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District made those devices mandatory in the fall in order to more accurately track attendance figures, but Hernandez objects because she says it’s the equivalent to walking the halls with the “Mark of the Beast.”
“‘We must obey the word of God,” her father said in court documents obtained by Wired. “By asking my daughter and our family to participate and fall in line like the rest of them is asking us to disobey our Lord and Savior.”
Attorneys for Hernandez have hoped that the court would grant an injunction against the district to keep the girl badge-free, but this week Judge Garcia said the requirement of wearing a card "has an incidental effect, if any, on (Hernandez's) religious beliefs.”
Herndanez’ refusal to follow the rules, ruled the justice, "is clearly a secular choice, rather than a religious concern."
Under the district’s new “Smart ID” program, roughly 4,200 students between two area schools are required to wear the cards. Hernandez says that, for not using the badge, she has been unable to participate in certain school functions and told she can’t enter certain rooms, such as the cafeteria and library.
"I had a teacher tell me I would not be allowed to vote because I did not have the proper voter ID," Hernandez told WND last year. "I had my old student ID card which they originally told us would be good for the entire four years we were in school. He said I needed the new ID with the chip in order to vote."
Northside has offered Hernandez an ID badge that is not outfitted with a microchip, but her parents and attorneys both say they will not accept that as a compromise.
“For Hernandez, a Christian, the badges pose a significant religious freedom concern in addition to the obvious privacy issues,” explains the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties and human rights group that has represented the student throughout her legal battle. “Andrea’s religious objection derives from biblical teachings that equate accepting a personalized code — as a sign of submission to government authority and as a means of obtaining certain privileges from a secular ruling authority — with a form of idolatry or submission to a false god.”
The court seemed less certain with that interpretation, however, insisting “The accommodation offered by the district is not only reasonable it removes plaintiff’s religious objection from legal scrutiny all together.”
The Northside School District hailed the judge’s decision by releasing a statement saying the ruling “affirms NISD’s position that we did make reasonable accommodation to the student by offering to remove the RFID chip from the student’s smart ID badge.”
Hernandez now has until January 18 to decide to either wear the badge or else go to a different school. Her legal counsel with the Rutherford Institute says they will file an appeal, though.
“The Supreme Court has made clear that government officials may not scrutinize or question the validity of an individual’s religious beliefs,” Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead says in a statement. “By declaring Andrea Hernandez’s objections to be a secular choice and not grounded in her religious beliefs, the district court is placing itself as an arbiter of what is and is not religious. This is simply not permissible under our constitutional scheme, and we plan to appeal this immediately.”
Chris Steinbach, the chief of staff for a Republican state lawmaker who wants to outlaw the technology in Texas schools, tells the AP it’s unusual to see the story attract the attention of such a diverse crowd.
"How often do you see an issue where the ACLU and Christian fundamentalists come together?” he asks the AP.