October 5, 2010
Cainan Gostnell typically wears a Christian cross around his neck outside his shirt while attending classes at Mann Middle School in Colorado Springs.
But on Friday and Monday, the 13-year-old boy left his cross and chain on a nail in his bedroom.
“He’s fearful of getting in trouble for wearing it,” his grandmother, Jannie Gostnell, said.
The reason: In July, District 11 allowed each school to decide whether to ban children from wearing crosses and rosaries during school hours outside their clothing.
Why? “Certain gangs have adopted crosses and rosaries as their gang symbols,” said District 11 spokeswoman Elaine Naleski.
Some gangs in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest are known to wear beads, crosses and rosaries as symbols of their bond with one another, said Los Angeles-based gang expert Alex Alonso. It’s common for schools to forbid students to wear gang symbols.
On Thursday, an announcement at Mann Middle School warned students they aren’t allowed to wear the rosary in public view during school hours. On Monday, the school sent out an email to parents reminding that if their children wear a rosary, it must be underneath the shirt.
Mann Middle School principal Scott Stanec didn’t return calls asking for clarification whether the school ban applies to both the cross and rosary, or just the rosary.
On Tuesday, Cainan Gostnell, who’s not part of a gang, wore his cross above his shirt at school. No school officials confronted him about it.
Naleski said each District 11 school decides whether to enforce the ban on crosses and rosaries, but she didn’t know which schools were enforcing it.
Jose Gurule, director of security for District 11 schools, said the ban has not been a big issue and he couldn’t recall any complaints about it.
But the Gostnell family on Tuesday was complaining loud and clear.
Cainan Gostnell said he stopped wearing his cross because he got nervous when he heard Thursday’s intercom announcement about the rosary.
“He loves Jesus and should be able to wear (a Christian symbol) outwardly as he chooses,” Cainan’s mom, Rebekah Gostnell, said.
She said if children of other religions are allowed to wear faith displays at Mann Middle, her son should be able to wear a cross or rosary.
“I don’t think it’s right to make some people hide their religious beliefs, and allow others to show their religious beliefs,” she said.
Jordan Sekulow, a human rights attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., said that banning the outward wearing of crosses and rosaries in public schools is unconstitutional.
Sekulow is representing a family whose seventh-grader was suspended for wearing a rosary at Oneida Middle School in Schenectady, N.Y. The suspension is based on the school’s view that the rosary is “gang-related.”
Recently the Oneida school changed its policy to allow children to wear the rosary, and an out-of-court settlement with the family is in the works, Sekulow said.
Sekulow said if there is no evidence that a student is part of a gang that uses religious symbols as adornment, the student has a constitutional right to openly wear a cross or rosary.
“Students don’t lose First Amendment rights when they enter the school gates,” Sekulow said.
To learn the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs' view on the District 11 rosary issue, go to Barna's blog, The Pulpit, at www.thepulpit.freedomblogging.com.