On The Front Lines
Dismissing Religious Belief Concerns, Federal Court Rules in Favor of Texas School’s Expulsion of Andrea Hernandez Over Objections to RFID Tracking Badge
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Declaring that a Texas student’s refusal to wear a chipless RFID tracking badge is “not grounded in her religious beliefs” and is a “secular choice rather than a religious concern,” U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio has denied The Rutherford Institute’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing school officials from expelling Andrea Hernandez until the case is decided.
According to the judge’s order, Hernandez, a sophomore in a science and engineering magnet school housed in John Jay High School, has until the end of the current semester to provide written notice to Northside Independent School District officials as to whether she will accept the school’s accommodation of wearing the Smart ID badge without a chip, which Andrea, a Christian, objects to on the grounds that it represents the “mark of the Beast.” The badges, part of the school’s “Student Locator Project,” include tiny Radio Frequency Identification (“RFID”) chips that produce a radio signal, enabling school officials to track students’ location on school property.
In coming to Andrea’s defense, Rutherford attorneys have alleged that the school’s attempts to penalize, discriminate and retaliate against Andrea violate her rights under Texas’ Religious Freedom Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Institute attorneys intend to appeal the judge’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court has made clear that government officials may not scrutinize or question the validity of an individual’s religious beliefs,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “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.”
The Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, has launched a program, the “Student Locator Project,” aimed ostensibly at increasing public funding for the district by increasing student attendance rates. As part of the pilot program, roughly 4,200 students at Jay High School and Jones Middle School are being required to wear “SmartID” card badges embedded with an RFID tracking chip which will make it possible for school officials to track students’ whereabouts on campus at all times. School officials hope that by expanding the program to the district’s 112 schools, they can secure up to $1.7 million in funding from the state government.
Fifteen-year-old Andrea Hernandez has been penalized, discriminated against, and retaliated against by school officials for objecting to being forced to participate in the RFID program. For Hernandez, a Christian, the badges pose a significant religious freedom concern in addition to the obvious privacy issues. 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.
Hernandez was informed that “there will be consequences for refusal to wear an ID card.” For example, students who refuse to take part in the ID program won’t be able to access essential services like the cafeteria and library, nor will they be able to purchase tickets to extracurricular activities. According to Hernandez, teachers are even requiring students to wear the IDs to use the bathroom. School officials offered to quietly remove the tracking chip from Andrea’s card if the sophomore would agree to wear the new badge without the embedded RFID chip so as to give the appearance of participation in the Student Locator Project. Andrea refused the offer, believing that to wear the “mark” of the program would still compromise her religious beliefs.
Affiliate attorney Jerri Lynn Ward is assisting The Rutherford Institute with Andrea’s defense.