In a closely watched case, a federal judge today ruled against a high school sophomore who refused to wear a student ID embedded with a radio frequency chip that tracks students’ movement on campus.
The teenager, Andrea Hernandez, and her father, Steven Hernandez, sued a San Antonio school district on primarily religious grounds for forcing her to wear a chip they considered a symbol of Satan or “mark of the Beast” warned of in biblical scripture. The Christian teen maintained wearing the Smart ID amounted to accepting a secular ruling authority in order to obtain certain privileges, which equates to submitting to a false god.
The Northside Independent School District offered to issue Hernandez an ID without the electronic tracking, but the student again refused.
“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 father wrote to district officials, according to a court document.
After the second refusal, school officials told the student she would need to transfer out of the science and mathematics magnet school she attends into another public school that does not require the RFID badges. She and her father then sought a preliminary injunction to stop the school transfer.
The Virginia-based civil rights group Rutherford Institute took up the case and had the backing of civil rights groups and the hacker collective Anonymous. Rutherford Institute lawyers claimed the school’s actions violated the 15-year-old’s right to religious freedom.
But on Tuesday U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled in favor of the transfer, saying the student’s refusal to wear the badge even without the tracking chip undermined those religious convictions.
“Plaintiff’s objection to wearing the Smart ID badge without a chip is clearly a secular choice, rather than a religious concern,” the judge wrote in a 25-page ruling.
Garcia also disagreed with the argument Hernandez’s constitutional right to free speech was violated.
“Although students in public schools ‘do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoothouse gate,’ the First Amendment rights of public school students ‘are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings’ and must be “applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” he wrote.
The school district adopted the RFID technology this school year in large part to prevent underreported attendance numbers and secure up to $1.7 million in state funding. It also adds a layer of safety during campus evacuations by alerting officials to the location of all students, including those that may need assistance during an emergency or disaster.
From its inception, the “Student Locator Program” has raised privacy concerns in San Antonio and other school districts nationwide, where electronic tracking devices have been implemented in pilot programs or sometimes scrapped because of parental uproar.
“Today’s court ruling affirms NISD’s position that we did make a reasonable accommodation,” the district said in an emailed statement sent to the San Antonio News. “The family now has the choice to accept the accommodation and stay at the magnet program, or return to her home campus.”
The Rutherford Institute said in a statement it plans to appeal Garcia’s decision.
“The Supreme Court has made clear that government officials may not scrutinize or question the validity of an individual’s religious beliefs,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, in a statement. “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.”