In a country like the U.S., new religions are popping up all the time, so it should come as no surprise that there is a church out there founded on the art of body modification. Despite the church’s legal status, officials at a school in North Carolina have expelled one of their students, who follows the religion, for wearing a nasal stud in class. Not only does the case parallel similar situations with interfaith online churches, but it further exemplifies how easy it is for local governments to get away with marginalizing obscure minority religious organizations.
When Ariana Iacono, 14, returned to school at North Carolina’s Clayton High School wearing a tiny stud in her nose (the size of a pinhead), school officials suspended her, leaving her to catch up on her schoolwork at home. According to Iacono’s mother, Nikki, reports Sarah Netter of ABC News, the principal said he had researched the Church of Body Modification and determined that Iacono did not have to wear the stud in school to practice her religion. Netter also reports that Iacono has already been disciplined by school officials with one, three, and five-day suspensions, and that the girl faces a ten-day suspension and a recommendation for attendance at an alternative school if she returns from her latest suspension with the nose stud still in place.
School officials have defended the decision. The school uses its own set of points or criteria to determine legal church status and whether a given practice reflects a person’s spiritual or religious faith, and it does makes written exemptions for cases in which body modification is seen to constitute a form of religious practice. These criteria include the following:
- a copy or citation of recognized religious text [such as the Bible]
- a written statement by a religious authority
- specific examples of sincerity of the student’s religious beliefs
Iacono’s piercing, they argue, failed to meet any of the criteria in their list. The nose stud, argued Johnston County Schools spokeswoman Terri Sessmons, was not supported by the teachings of any religious text or a written statement by any church authority or clergy member, and it did not reflect sincerity of religious belief.
But Church of Body Modification members have criticized the actions of the school and the basis for its decision, which they regard as a form of religious intolerance and possibly an infringement on constitutional guarantees to the free exercise of religion. One of these critics is Richard Ivey III, a 22 year-old former Jehovah’s Witness who serves as a minister in the church and also works in a tattoo and body piercing shop. Quoting Ivey, Netter says, “[the school principal is] basically saying that because he doesn’t understand it, it can’t be a sincerely held religious belief…. How do you judge someone’s sincerity when it comes to religion?”
Gary Laderman, professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University, suggests the school has no rational basis for invalidating Iacono’s practice, arguing that it is simply misunderstood because of its novelty: “I think there is much more to religious life and culture than God…. To me [body modification] is a great illustration of an alternative form of religious practice and commitment [that we’re not] used to”, adding that these alternative spiritual practices face particular prejudice in the highly conservative American south, which tends to lag behind the rest of the developed world in terms of social progress. Referring to the principal and the school’s religious exemption criteria, Iacono herself argued, “I don’t think it’s fair that he can determine what’s necessary for our religion, for me and my beliefs”.
So is the Church of Body Modification a legitimate religious institution, and does Iacono deserve an exemption from the school’s dress-code? Perhaps it is more legitimate than many would think. Netter points out that the church is officially incorporated and has a president residing in Pennsylvania, where it is registered as a non-profit organization; Laderman also notes that it is recognized as a legal entity by the government. If the government is satisfied that the organization is a real church, and if the public school system is part of the government, well, it follows that the public school system should as well. The church even has a doctrine: for members, body modification represents the unification of body, mind, and spirit through art, a means of accessing the divine. And just like home churches, which serve as intimate gathering places for worshippers, members gather at each other’s houses to practice their religion.
Besides, the criteria provided by school officials are not necessarily valid. Some religions do not have published religious texts, but only oral traditions, while others have no hierarchical structure, every member being a clergy member, and it is tremendously difficult to prove that Iacono’s piercing is not a sincere expression of her faith. And even if a statement by a church authority were a necessary criterion, we have already established that the church does have legally ordained ministers—Ivey is one of them.
Whether or not Iacono succeeds in changing the minds of school officials (she and her mother have now appealed to the ACLU for legal assistance), one thing seems certain: religion is constantly metamorphosing and re-inventing itself, requiring us to re-define it, and new religions are springing up every day, heralding new trends in spiritual life in the United States.
What do you think? Should Ariana Iacono have been suspended for wearing a tiny little nose-stud, even though she claims it constitutes a form of religious observance, and does her punishment constitute an infringement on religious freedom?