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Judge Rejects Challenge to Student-Tracking Chips

A federal judge has rejected a Texas student's request for a preliminary injunction that would provide relief from her high school's program of requiring identification badges with tracking chips.

The student and her parents object on religious grounds to the high-tech ID badges at John Jay High School in the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. The badges contain radio-frequency-identification, or RFID, chips that permit administrators to monitor the general proximity of students within the school; they also allow students to pay for their school lunches, among other functions. The 100,000-student district began testing the badges at two of its campuses this school year.

Steve Hernandez, the father of Andrea Hernandez, a 15-year-old sophomore who attends a magnet science and engineering program on the John Jay High campus, says in court papers he believes such a tracking chip is the "mark of the beast," or the work of the devil, under the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

Hernandez testified in a court hearing that the "Antichrist wants to control every move," and said that he believes the "tracking chip" in the ID badge would track his child's every move in school.

School officials offered to accommodate the family's religious objections by removing the RFID chip from the girl's ID badge, but they insisted Hernandez wear the same new ID badge as other students. The family rejected the proposed accommodation, instead seeking to have Hernandez wear an older version of the school ID badge. When school officials said Hernandez would have to return to her home campus if she refused to wear the new badge (even without the tracking chip), the family sued on First Amendment free-exercise-of-religion grounds, among others.

In his Jan. 8 decision in A.H. v. Northside Independent School District, U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia of San Antonio rejected the family's request for a preliminary injunction and said the ID badges with the tracking chips likely passed constitutional muster.

"The district requires that every student on the Jay H.S. campus wear the same ID badge, which happens to be a Smart ID badge," Judge Garcia said. "The rule is neutral in both purpose and application, as the entire student body is subject to the requirement. The rule serves many purposes that have nothing to do with religion, religious beliefs, or religious practices. The district has a legitimate need to easily identify its students for purposes of safety, security, attendance, and funding, and the requirement that all students carry a Smart ID badge is certainly a rational means to meet such needs."

Even applying the highest level of scrutiny and assuming that the family has a sincere religious objection to the high-tech ID badges, the judge said the family failed to show that the technology "imposes a substantial burden on the observation of a central religious belief."

"Even if plaintiff could show a substantial burden, the district has a compelling governmental interest that outweighs such burden," the judge said. "In today's climate, one would be hard pressed to argue that the safety and security of the children and educators in our public school system is not a compelling governmental interest. Mandatory identification badges issued to all students, staff, and visitors further the school's interest in providing a safe and secure environment for everyone on campus."

(Hat Tip to NSBA's Legal Clips for the opinion.) Meanwhile, the case is part do the Featured Discussion of the week on the Education Week Teacher site.

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