If I asked you to define religion, what would you say? Would you define it as a system of belief and worship in a supernatural power or god? Perhaps you would insist that a religion explains the origin and purpose of the universe. Would you describe it as having devotional and ritual observances, and does it require a moral code and a philosophy? As one of the most enduring, popular, and significant topics in society, you would think we could define it cleanly and uniquely. Our inability to do so promises to stir trouble, especially in our legal system.
Take, for example, Ariana Iacono, a 14-year-old freshman in Clayton, North Carolina (about 15 miles southeast of Raleigh). At least, she is supposed to be a freshman at Clayton High School, but she keeps getting suspended in this young school year. Ariana has a small stud ring in her nose and has insisted on wearing it to school. Unfortunately for her, Clayton High School’s dress code forbids the facial piercing. Rather than accepting that rule and taking the nose ring out at school, Ariana asked for a religious exemption (which she was denied).
So, what religion views wearing a nose ring as a form of worship? I’m glad you asked. The Church of Body Modification claims about 3,500 members nationwide (roughly 20 of which are in North Carolina). The Church is federally recognized and boasts a clergy, a statement of beliefs, and a formal process for accepting new members. Perhaps the group itself can best describe its creed:
The Church of Body Modification represents a collection of members practicing ancient and modern body modification rites. We believe these rites are essential to our spirituality. Practicing body modification and engaging in body manipulation rituals strengthen the bond between mind, body, and soul. By doing so, we ensure that we live as spiritually complete and healthy individuals. (http://uscobm.com/)
In addition to recognizing facial piercings as a spiritual act, some Church members practice suspension, the act of suspending a human body from hooks that have been put through body piercings. Other methods of body modification include tongue-splitting, ear-lobe extending, sub-dermal implants, and branding or scarring. And while the church identifies itself as a religion, it is not associated with a deity, and it allows its members to practice other religions. Some members identify as Christians, Buddhists, and Wiccans.
Now that you know a bit more about the Church of Body Modification, what do you think of Ariana Iacono (a member of the Church) asking for a religious exemption to wear her nose ring?
The Johnston County school system does have an exemption in its dress code for religious, spiritual, or cultural reasons, but the Clayton High School principal said he researched the religion and did not believe Ariana’s stud was necessary. Johnston County Schools spokeswoman Terri Sessmons said that Ariana Iacono failed to meet every single point of a multi-count criteria for a religious exemption. Those criteria include a copy or citation of recognized religious text, a written statement by a religious authority, and specific examples of sincerity of the student’s religious beliefs.
Ariana’s mother, Nikki Iacono, claims that her daughter found solace in her nose piercing. “She had been abused as a kid, as a young kid, for several years. She struggled with self esteem and self worth. This was for her a symbolic representation of reclaiming her beauty and her self esteem…. It had a lot of meaning behind it, which is why I stood behind her,” she said.
Apparently, the school offered to let Ariana wear a retainer in the hole while she is at school, to prevent the hole from closing up so soon after she got it pierced. However, the mother said she is worried about infection from the cheap and porous plastic.
So far, Ariana has been hit with one, three, and five-day suspensions, and if she returns tomorrow with the ring still in, she faces a 10-day suspension and a recommendation to an alternative school. The consequences are real. This is no way to begin your four-year high school career when you hope to get into college, as Ariana says she does.
Why the battle then? I will be the first to admit that a rule banning a tiny nose ring at school is probably a pretty dumb rule. The ring is not hurting anyone and it likely is not distracting anyone. But school systems are allowed to and must draw the line somewhere, and Clayton High School has drawn the line here. The rule was made clear, and Ariana (with the support of her 32-year-old mother) continues to willfully break it. Besides, they don’t even allow prayer in school.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which the Iaconos have contacted for help, piercings have not been considered by the courts to be protected speech by the First Amendment. “Like a political T-shirt, piercings are non-verbal communication, but, unlike words on a shirt, they don’t convey a specific message and are, therefore, not seen as protected speech. They are also seen as a possible disruption or health risk.” (ACLU on dress codes here)
But Ariana’s case is different. She’s not asking to wear her nose ring based on protected speech, but based on protected religion. And members of the Church of Body Modification might disagree with the statement that piercings are not conveying a specific message.
I think the most intriguing aspect of this case is the war to define religion. If Ariana had asked for an exemption based on Hindu beliefs or Jewish customs, I imagine she would have been granted it quite easily. But because she belongs to a church that many find strange and dubious (though federally recognized), she was turned down. That’s not to say that she should have been granted the exemption, but when the school system is determining what is a justifiable religion, we are headed down a slippery slope that leads to falling off a cliff.
And what to think of the polytheistic approach? The Church of Body Modification allows its members to be members of other faiths. They claim that many members profess to be Christian, but the Old Testament strictly forbids body modification:
You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:28)
Certainly Judaism would be mutually exclusive with the Church of Body Modification. Of course, society has grown lenient on many of the religious texts’ teachings and decrees. We choose and grab the parts of the Bible or the Koran or whatever it may be that are convenient for our lives. This isn’t exactly a new concept.
But what about this 14-year-old girl who is standing up for what she believes in? Do you think she is doing the right thing, whether you agree with her belief or not? Do you think she has a legitimate claim to the religious exemption or that she is being denied such exemption based on the suspect nature of her professed faith? Even as I use the word faith, I must hesitate. Do we need to start thinking of religion in broader terms?
Personally, I think Ariana Iacono is wrong. Was she right to challenge the system and ask for an exemption? Absolutely. She has every right to do that, and she has a case. However, she was denied that exemption, and the rule is clear. If you want to go to Johnston County public schools, you have to take the ring out. There are outlined criteria that must be met in order to qualify for the exemption, and she did not meet them. At this point, she is only hurting herself. And what is she being taught? That the rules do not apply to her? Where are the responsibility, maturity, and respect for authority? In the real world, your employer is probably going to want you to take that nose ring out also.
But what if Ariana had met the criteria for exemption? Would they have granted it to her, or would they still have denied it based on the questionable nature of the so-called religion? In that case, what do you think they should do? After all, the Church of Body Modification is legally recognized by the federal government. And why is the federal government in the business of officially recognizing religions anyway? And if they recognize something as different as this Church, at some point, the definition of religion could become so diluted that just about everything could be considered religion. Where would that leave the separation of church and state?
Because honestly, the Church of Body Modification sounds as much like a religion as a book club or a sports fanatic. And at least Clemson football worshipers have a temple (Memorial Stadium) and a large congregation that tithes a good percentage of its income.
So, now it’s your turn. What do you think of the school’s decision to continually suspend Ariana? Do you think she has a legitimate case? What are your thoughts on the definition of religion? All opinions and comments are encouraged and appreciated. Thanks!
** Update: Ariana came to school on Tuesday with her nose ring and was promptly suspended again, for 10 days this time.