'Spiritual' piercings perturb school

Staff WriterSeptember 11, 2010 

— A Clayton High School freshman twice suspended because of her nose piercing says officials aren't respecting her little-known religion, which encourages piercings and tattoos.

Ariana Iacono, 14, was suspended from Clayton High for one day Wednesday when she refused to remove the small peridot stud in her nose. Ariana returned to school with the jewelry Thursday, then was suspended for three additional days.

Ariana and her mother, Nikki Iacono, take part in the Church of Body Modification, a small group with members across the nation. The church embraces spiritual growth through practices such as piercing.

"It's a spiritual thing," Ariana said of her piercing. "I feel whole."

But Johnston County Schools' dress code says students are not allowed to wear jewelry on the nose, tongue, lips, cheek or eyebrow. The policy says school leaders will make "reasonable accommodation" for students who request a waiver because of "a sincerely held religious belief, cultural heritage, or medical reason."

The Iaconos want the school system to recognize the Church of Body Modification as a religion worthy of such an exemption. Nikki Iacono, 32, said she spoke with Clayton High Principal Clint Eaves, who denied the family's request.

"He pretty much said to me that according to his interpretation of our beliefs ... that it wasn't necessary for her to have a nose piercing," Iacono said. "I think it's unfair that the school district is able to interpret our beliefs and our sincerity."

Eaves could not be reached for comment Friday. But Johnston schools Superintendent Ed Croom said it's up to principals to interpret and enforce the school system's dress code, which aims to create a safe learning environment.

"We have a policy in place," Croom said. "When students violate policy, we hold them to that. We stand behind the policy."

Church of 3,500

Richard Ivey, 22, of Raleigh is a minister with the Church of Body Modification. The group has about 20 members in North Carolina and about 3,500 members nationwide, he said.

The church aims "to promote growth in mind, body and soul" through body modification, according to its website. It was formed in Arizona about 10 years ago and was incorporated in Pennsylvania in 2008, Ivey said.

Locally, members get together to practice body-manipulation rituals such as placing hooks through the skin, he said. Many members have body piercings and tattoos, he said, and some cut or burn their skin to create scars.

"There is a spiritual significance there for that person in terms of what they choose for themselves," Ivey said. "It might seem silly to other people, but for us, this is what we have, this is what we hold onto."

Ariana said she pierced her nose over the summer to help her cope with a troubled childhood. Her mother said she has noticed an improvement in Ariana's self-esteem since she got the piercing. It's similar to the way makeup helps many women feel more beautiful, Nikki Iacono said.

A body piercing is a positive way for her daughter to deal with her painful past "instead of going out and shooting heroin or misbehaving at school," Iacono said.

Ariana is allowed to return to school Tuesday, but she said she will not remove the piercing. School officials say failure to remove it could result in a five-day suspension. The family said it has filed an appeal to the superintendent.

The Iaconos also have contacted the North Carolina office of the American Civil Liberties Union for help. No one from the ACLU was available for comment Friday. Iacono said that she is a single mother enrolled in college classes and that she can't afford a lawyer.

First Amendment claim

Jason Langberg, a lawyer for Advocates for Children's Services in North Carolina, said Ariana's decision to have a nose piercing is protected by First Amendment rights if it is part of her religion. Her constitutional right, he said, trumps the school system's policy as long as the piercing doesn't pose a threat to school safety or disrupt learning.

"It seems like a fight you don't want to pick," Langberg said.

In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed a $2 million religious discrimination lawsuit filed by a Massachusetts member of the Church of Body Modification. The woman had sued retailer Costco when it fired her for refusing to remove or cover up her eyebrow piercing.

The Iaconos said they will keep fighting. Ivey is by their side.

"Who's to tell you that your beliefs are more or less important than any other person's?" Ivey said. "To have that said to us is extremely disheartening."

sarah.nagem@nando.com or 919-829-4758

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