Schools can monitor the location of their students for the purpose of tracking attendance, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday. The case involved a sophomore, Andrea Hernandez, 15, who had been expelled from Texas' San Antonio Northside School District because she refused to wear the device, which is required of all students at the magnet school.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia refused the family's request to block the district from removing her from the school while the case works its way through the federal courts. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is among the privacy rights organizations opposing the district's use of radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology to track their students.
For the district, the fourth-largest in Texas, with about 100,000 students, the issue is about money. As with many other states, Texas counts a student present for the purpose of distributing education funds based on attendance taken in classrooms at the start of the day. Northside said it was losing $1.7 million a year due to students loitering outside of the classrooms, in areas such the stairwells, restrooms, or the hallways.
The software works only within the walls of the school building, cannot track the movements of students, and does not allow students to be monitored by third parties.
What's interesting is that one might assume that the groups backing the student and her family are citing privacy in the matter. For example, ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley said:
We don't want to see this kind of intrusive surveillance infrastructure gain inroads into our culture. We should not be teaching our children to accept such an intrusive surveillance technology.
However, for the family, it's not about privacy at all. Reportedly Hernandez' lawsuit argues that the ID rule violates her religious beliefs. Her family has said that it considers the badge a “mark of the beast.”
To Christians, the mark of the beast is the sign of the Antichrist. Of note is that in a relatively recent development, as technology has advanced, some have felt that the implant or use of electronic ID chips are the mark of the beast. Others have gone so far as to point to credit or debit cards as being the mark of the beast.
However, in general Bible scholars agree that the mark of the beast will be a recognizable sign of those who have voluntarily -- with that word in bold -- chosen to follow the Antichrist.
The Northside Independent School District began experimenting with locator chips in student ID badges on two campuses last fall. In his ruling, Garcia noted that Hernandez had previously worn similar, but chip-less ID badges, and that she refused to wear the badge even if the district removed the chip from her badge. He said:
The District acknowledged her "sincerely held religious belief" and removed the chip, but Plaintiff still refused to wear the ID badge. Plaintiff does not contend that she has a "sincerely held religious belief" that wearing the badge without a chip is still the mark of the beast. And only with prompting by her counsel did A.H. agree that wearing the badge without a chip would mean she has to "bear false witness" to a program that she disagrees with. Thus, Plaintiff's objection to wearing a badge without a chip is not grounded in her religious beliefs.
Again, Plaintiff has been wearing a student ID badge for several years. She doesn't object to wearing her old ID badge, yet she objects to the new ID badge issued by Jay H.S. despite the fact that the chip has been removed. Plaintiff's objection to wearing the Smart ID badge without a chip is clearly a secular choice, rather than a religious concern.
Garcia said that if Hernandez refuses the school district’s accommodation of wearing the badge without the tracking chip, the district can transfer her to another campus.
In a prepared statement, the district said Hernandez, a sophomore, has until Jan. 22, the start of the second semester, to decide whether she will accept the compromise and stay at the magnet school or be transferred.
Today's court ruling affirms NISD's position that we did make a reasonable accommodation. The family now has the choice to accept the accommodation and stay at the magnet program, or return to her home campus.
John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which represented Hernandez in her federal court case, said that his organization will appeal, and that he expects Hernandez will not accept the accommodation. Perhaps because of the organization's right-wing perspective, it took a more religious view of the case than the ACLU, with Whitehead saying:
The Supreme Court has made clear that government officials may not scrutinize or question the validity of an individual’s religious beliefs. By declaring Andrea Hernandez’s objections to be a secular choice and not grounded in her religious beliefs, the district court is placing itself as an arbiter of what is and is not religious.
This is simply not permissible under our constitutional scheme, and we plan to appeal this immediately.
We'll see how the appeal goes. Since many schools are under funding pressure, and many of them obtain state funds in the same manner as NISD, it's possible others may pursue similar location tracking measures, and this case may eventually end up as being a landmark one.