By David Kravets
A Texas high school student who claimed her student identification was the “Mark of the Beast” because it was implanted with a radio-frequency identification chip has lost her federal court bid Tuesday challenging her suspension for refusing to wear the card around her neck.
Radio-frequency identification devices are a daily part of the electronic age — found in passports, and library and payment cards. Eventually they’re expected to replace bar-code labels on consumer goods. Now schools across the nation are slowly adopting them as well.
Northside Independent School District in San Antonio began issuing the RFID-chip-laden student-body cards when the semester began in the fall. The ID badge has a bar code associated with a student’s Social Security number, and the RFID chip monitors pupils’ movements on campus, from when they arrive until when they leave.
Sophomore Andrea Hernandez was notified in November by the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio that she won’t be able to continue attending John Jay High School unless she wears the badge around her neck. The district said the girl, who objects largely on religious grounds, would have to attend another high school that does not employ the RFID tags.
She sued, a judge tentatively halted the suspension, but changed course Tuesday after concluding that the 15-year-old’s right of religion was not breached. That’s because the district eventually agreed to accommodate the girl and allow her to remove the RFID chip while still demanding that she wear the identification like the other students.
The Hernandez family claims the badge and its chip signifies Satan, or the “Mark of the Beast” warning in Revelations 13:16-18. The girl refused the district’s offer, sued, and was represented by the Rutherford Institute.
“The accommodation offered by the district is not only reasonable it removes plaintiff’s religious objection from legal scrutiny all together,” (.pdf) U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia wrote.
The girl’s father, Steven, wrote the school district explaining why removing the chip wasn’t good enough, that the daughter should be free from displaying the card altogether. “‘We must obey the word of God,” the father said, according to court documents. “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.”
The institute, which said it would appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, blasted the decision.
“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 institute said in statement.
The district, however, hailed the decision.
“Today’s court 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,” the district said in a statement.
The motive behind the RFID tagging appears largely financial.
Like most state-financed schools, the district’s budget is tied to average daily attendance. If a student is not in his seat during morning roll call, the district doesn’t receive daily funding for that pupil because the school has no way of knowing for sure if the student is there.
But with the RFID tracking, students not at their desks but tracked on campus are counted as being in school that day, and the district receives its daily allotment for that student.
Tagging school children with RFID chips is uncommon, but not new. A federally funded preschool in Richmond, California, began embedding RFID chips in students’ clothing in 2010. And an elementary school outside of Sacramento, California, scrubbed a plan in 2005 amid a parental uproar. And a Houston, Texas, school district began using the chips to monitor students on 13 campuses in 2004 for the same reasons the Northside Independent School District implemented the program. Northside is mulling adopting the program for its other 110 schools.
Judge Garcia gave the girl until the end of the semester, January 18, to say whether she will wear the badge or transfer to another school.