A student doesn’t lose the right to freedom of belief when he or she steps in school. Personal religious expression is protected from government interference through the Free Exercise Clause. Schools, as formative institutions, possess an affirmative obligation to not only adhere to these constitutional principles but also to cultivate respect for their practice. 

However, when a Native American student in the Churchill County High School wore a medicine bag, on two separate occasions, a security guard and a teacher desecrated the medicine bag by searching and seizing it. The student is a member of the Fallon Paiute tribe, and as part of his spiritual practices and beliefs, wears a medicine bag around his neck. The medicine bag is considered a sacred offering to Mother Earth, and acts as a very personal object of spirituality.

The student and his mother reached out to the ACLU of Nevada for help, and we sent a letter to the school on behalf of the student to address the student’s constitutional rights. We explained there is no evidence that wearing a medicine bag has caused or is likely to cause any substantial disruption at school. Therefore, either prohibiting a student from wearing a medicine bag at school or searching its contents “violates his constitutional rights to freedom of belief, expression, and privacy protected under the Nevada State and U.S. Constitutions.”

We also asked Churchill County High School Principal Kevin Lords to ensure that staff respects the privacy of medicine bags, through appropriate trainings and individualized discussions.

Churchill County School District’s response demonstrated a commitment to improve school practices and respect students’ privacy and religious liberty. “Principal Lords was fully aware of the two incidents you described,” the School District stated in a letter, and “Mr. Lords or his designee spoke with the staff member involved individually about the requirements under law and policy for a search of student property to be conducted.” The Principal “trained the whole staff on the requirements for a search of student property” and the District’s Indian Education Liaison will also “instruct the staff at that upcoming staff meeting regarding the treatment and use of medicine bags.”

The ACLU welcomes Churchill County’s willingness to train its staff on the appropriate treatment of sacred spiritual items.

In expressing her thanks to the ACLU, the mother of the young man observed, “Many of the original occupants of this land still practice what our ancestors have given us. I am with sincere gratitude that you and your fellow legal team have heard what I am trying to say and get people to understand. Thank you for your interest & understanding. Change has to start somewhere.”

The ACLU of Nevada is glad that we were able to be a part of this important change.