San Antonio student loses case over school district’s forced tracking chips

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In a Texas lawsuit pitting a student’s religious freedom against a San Antonio school district seeking the power to track the whereabouts of all students on campus electronically, religious freedom has lost.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia has ruled that the Northside Independent School District can force Andrea Hernandez to transfer from the specialized science and technology magnet school she attends because she refuses to wear a microchip-laden badge, reports the San Antonio Express-News.

Hernandez, a 15-year-old student at John Jay High School’s magnet school, and her family oppose the radio frequency-enabled badges on religious grounds. They say wearing the badge is the equivalent of accepting the Book of Revelation’s “mark of the beast” that symbolizes submission to the Antichrist.

“It is our Hell Fire Belief that if we compromise our faith and religious freedom to allow you to track my daughter while she is at school, it will condemn us to hell,” Andrea’s father, Steven Hernandez, wrote in a letter to district officials in the fall.

At a hearing before the judge, the elder Hernandez choked back tears as he read passages from the Bible and described the depth of his religious conviction in a hearing on the case. Forcing his daughter to wear a badge, he told the court, “would compromise our salvation for NISD to make some money.”

After the hearing, Steven Hernandez told the Express-News that “in this case, Northside is the Antichrist.”

At the same hearing, Andrea told the judge that she would suffer if she were forced to transfer because Taft High School, her neighborhood public school, does not offer the computer-related courses she wants to take.

“I earned my way into this school,” Hernandez said, according to WOAI-TV. “And for them to kick me out because of my religious beliefs is unfair for them to do.”

The family filed its lawsuit in November alleging violations of her constitutional rights after the school district told Hernandez she would have to attend Taft High if she did not wear the badge.

The identification cards are part of a pilot program. Since this fall, all students at John Jay High School have been required to wear or carry embedded badges at all times while at school. Electronic readers installed in the schools’ ceiling panels then constantly track every student’s location at school.

The new electronic tracking system is primarily a means of maximizing funding. If schools can prove that students are, in fact, on campus, they receive more state funding, Northside Superintendent Brian Woods had previously testified in court.

Two school districts in the Houston area have reportedly had success using the technology already, and have seen increased funding for improved attendance.

The lawsuit, brought by Hernandez through her father, had sought an injunction that would permit the high schooler to attend John Jay without having to wear a badge.

School district officials had offered a compromise that would have allowed Andrea Hernandez to stay at John Jay, the Express-News notes. Under the compromise, Hernandez would wear a special badge with the microchip removed.

She and her family rejected the proposed arrangement.

“Today’s court ruling affirms NISD’s position that we did make reasonable accommodation” to Andrea’s religious concerns, the district said in a statement, according to the Express-News. “The family now has the choice to accept the accommodation and stay at the magnet program, or return to her home campus.”

Hernandez has about a month to make a decision.

While the Hernandez family reportedly has not spoken about the adverse ruling, Andrea previously told the Express-News that an appeal would be forthcoming if the district court ruled against her.

Officials with the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based civil liberties organization that has provided legal support for the Hernandez family, have indicated that an appeal is in the works.

“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,” said John W. Whitehead, the institute’s president, according to the Express-News. “This is simply not permissible.”

Northside Independent School District — the fourth largest in Texas — comprises more than 100 schools over 97,000 students. It could eventually use the ID tracking system program at all of its campuses.

The principal at the high school had threatened Hernandez with expulsion before she and her father filed the lawsuit.

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Tags : education
Eric Owens