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Mathis brothers in school activities for now

Posted at 9:40 PM, Oct 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-03 09:40:02-04

MATHIS, Texas — Two brothers attending Mathis High School who wear hair braids for religious reasons are back to participating in after-school activities despite objections from the Mathis Independent School District.

For Cesar Gonzales, it's a return to the football team. For his freshman brother, Diego, it's school clubs.

"So far [Cesar] has been able to participate in practice," said Jamie Aycock, the attorney representing the Gonzales family. "We're looking forward to him being able to play in a game. Diego's had his teachers reach out to him about both the math club and the science team."

Mathis ISD's dress code doesn't allow boys to have long hair, which has kept the brothers out of extracurricular activities for the past three school years. The Gonzales family filed a lawsuit in hopes of getting Cesar and Diego back into sports and clubs. Recently a federal-court judge issued an injunction. It requires Mathis ISD to let the brothers participate in after-school activities until the lawsuit goes to trial.

"They're happy, but they're concerned about what's going to happen next," Aycock said of the boys.

Cesar and Diego wear the braids because their father made a promise to God that he would never cut a strand of hair on the backs of their heads when Cesar became very ill as an infant. His father made the promise, and Cesar recovered. The family considers the promise part of its core religious beliefs. Mathis ISD doesn't believe that meets the criteria required for a religious exemption to the district's dress code.

"We don't think that's protected by the Constitution," Eichelbaum said. "Because, how is a school district ever supposed to be able to govern if children and parents can claim an exception to any rule at any time if they simply say, 'I made a promise to God.' "

The school district is appealing the judge's decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. It's also asking the judge to issue a stay of her ruling, which would once again remove Cesar and Diego from extracurricular activities.

"We don't want our children, and our campus, and our district to be represented by people who are not following our rules," said Dennis Eichelbaum, the attorney representing Mathis ISD.

Aycock thinks the judge will not stay her ruling. That means the Gonzales brothers likely will continue participating in extracurricular activities, at least until the lawsuit goes to trial. It is scheduled for March. He says it could be months before the appeals court makes its ruling in the case. Until then, he has a message for Mathis ISD.

"We would just urge them to do the right thing and not continue to waste taxpayer dollars to fight somebody's religious freedom," he said.