RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal judge ordered a North Carolina school to admit a 14-year-old high school student suspended for wearing a nose piercing she says is part of her religion, and the teenager headed to science class Friday afternoon.
U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard on Friday ordered the Johnston County schools to suspend enforcement of their dress code for Ariana Iacono and allow her to return to school immediately. The judge ruled that the girl and her mother are likely to prevail in the lawsuit filed on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We are thrilled that Ariana can return to her studies," her mother, Nikki Iacono, said in a statement released by the ACLU. "Ariana was an honor roll student in middle school, and she is eager to get back to her classes and continue with her education as soon as possible."
A call to Nikki Iacono by The Associated Press was not immediately returned.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday claims school officials violated Iacono's constitutional religious liberty rights. The freshman has been suspended repeatedly since classes started four weeks ago. She and her mother, Nikki, claim the nose piercing is part of their faith, not a fashion statement.
The Johnston County school system has a dress code banning facial piercings, but allows for exemptions based on religious beliefs.
An attorney for the Johnston County school district, Neal Ramee, declined comment.
Ariana will be able to attend Clayton High School with her nose stud at least until Nov. 3, when another hearing is scheduled, said her attorney, Jon Sasser.
The Iaconos belong to a small religious group called the Church of Body Modification, which sees piercings and tattoos as religious devotion. The church has 3,500 members nationwide and was incorporated in Pennsylvania in July 2008, according to the lawsuit.
Richard Ivey, the Iaconos' Raleigh minister in the Church of Body Modification, said the temporary order is encouraging.
"It's a great step toward justice," he said.
The Johnston County school system has a dress code banning facial piercings, along with short skirts, sagging pants, "abnormal hair color" and other items deemed distracting or disruptive.
But the dress code also allows for exemptions based on "sincerely held religious belief," and says, "the principal or designees shall not attempt to determine whether the religious beliefs are valid, but only whether they are central to religious doctrine and sincerely held."
That's where the school stepped over the line, the lawsuit alleges, saying officials repeatedly dismissed explanations of the Iaconos' faith by the family and their Raleigh minister.
Ariana Iacono has been suspended four times since fall classes started, missing 21 days so far. On Monday, the school system denied an appeal of her most recent suspension, and told her she'd have to attend South Campus Community School, an alternative facility for students with disciplinary and other problems. She still wouldn't be allowed to wear the nose piercing in the other school.
Associated Press writer Tom Breen contributed to this report.