On The Front Lines
Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Denies Injunction Prohibiting Texas School Officials from Expelling Student Over Objections to RFID Tracking Badge
SAN ANTONIO, Texas —The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied The Rutherford Institute’s request to prohibit Texas school officials from removing high school sophomore Andrea Hernandez from her current academic program at John Jay Science & Engineering Academy pending the outcome of her case. Hernandez, a 15-year-old Texas public school student, was essentially expelled over her refusal to wear a chipless RFID tracking badge based on her sincere religious beliefs that it represents the “mark of the Beast.”
The Fifth Circuit’s ruling comes on the heels of a January 8 ruling by U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio denying Hernandez’s request for a preliminary injunction on the grounds that the sophomore’s refusal to wear the chipless tracking badge is “not grounded in her religious beliefs” and is a “secular choice rather than a religious concern.” The badges, part of John Jay High School’s “Student Locator Project,” include tiny chips that produce a radio signal, enabling school officials to track students’ location on school property.
In coming to Andrea’s defense, Rutherford Institute 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. Rutherford attorneys are considering several legal options, but have stated that the case will move forward on the merits of their constitutional claims.
“This ruling is a sad statement on our nation’s growing intolerance for dissent and for those whose religious beliefs may differ from the mainstream,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “When all is said and done, this case is about priorities: whether it’s more important for the schools to make money or for individual freedoms to be respected. Sadly, the message being sent out by the courts and school officials thus far is that money trumps freedom.”
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.