When seventh-grader Raymond Hosier was suspended for wearing rosary beads to school late last month, civil rights groups rushed to his defense.
"Without question, the continuing action taken by the school district in punishing Raymond for wearing a rosary to school violates the constitutional rights of our client," argued Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice.
After Sekulow filed a lawsuit, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on June 1, telling Oneida Middle School and the school district in Schenectady, N.Y., to allow Hosier, 13, to wear the rosary to class. A full hearing was held yesterday (June 11).
Like school principals and superintendents in other states, including Texas, California, Oregon, and Virginia, Oneida officials say the no-rosary-beads rule is necessary to "protect students from violence and gangs."
They have a point, according to gang experts. After schools began banning gang-related bandanas, clothing, and hairstyles about a decade ago, students have turned to rosaries as a subtle and often First-Amendment-protected way to signal gang allegiance.
"With the introduction of strict dress codes and the use of uniforms in the school systems, these type of indicators seem to be favored by the gangsters," the San Antonio (Texas) Police Department says in a handbook about gang awareness.
Gangsters not only wear certain colors -- reds for Bloods, blues for Crips, for example -- they also arrange the beads to signal their rank in the gang, and teach young members to plead religious freedom if they're hauled into the principal's office, said Jared Lewis, a former police officer in California who worked in public schools.
"You are often dealing with gang members who have no inkling or cares about the religious significance of the rosary beads," said Lewis, who now runs Know Gangs, a training group for law enforcement officials. "They are just trying to skirt around school rules under the guise of a religious symbol."
No one is sure which gang started the trend of wearing rosaries, said Robert Walker, a former head of the gang identification unit for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Like a lot of gang fads, he said, it likely started in California and migrated east.
"One gang started it -- who it was, nobody knows. Another gang saw it and thought it was cool, and started using it, too," Walker said. "These things just evolve."