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Texas test case: Do school IDs with locator chips violate religious freedom?

A Texas student has has sued her school district, which tried to transfer her when she refused to participate in program that introduced ID badges with locator chips.

By Staff writer / November 28, 2012

If a school requires its students to wear IDs embedded with locator chips at all times, is that an infringement on their privacy? Or even, for some students, on their religious values?

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Andrea Hernandez, a high school student in San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District, has sued the district over ID badges equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, which she and fellow students were required to wear this year as part of a pilot project. As an Evangelical Christian who believes that any sort of tracking technology is a “mark of the beast,” she believes it violates her religious freedoms.

The result has been an unusual alliance of Evangelical Christians and civil-liberties groups who claim that the technology is an overextension of technology into personal lives. It also points to rising concerns as locator technologies like RFID become more widespread.

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The technology is not new, though its use in schools has been somewhat limited. The Northside district began requiring some 4,000 students at two schools to wear the RFID-embedded IDs.

A prime motivator is financial. Texas, which last year cut school funding by nearly $5 billion, pays school districts based on how many students attend on any given day.

Often, students are marked absent because they’re not in their seats when roll is called, even though they might just be in the nurse’s office, says Pascual Gonzalez, communications director for the district.

The district paid $261,000 for the ID technology, but is hoping to get $1.7 million of additional state revenue over the year based on increased attendance numbers.

Beyond the attendance money, Mr. Gonzalez says, are safety concerns. “This is not a tracking pilot, this is a locating pilot,” he says. “When there’s an emergency in the school, if we have to lock down the school or evacuate a school or whatever, we will be able to find a student as we need to by entering a randomly assigned number.”

But that’s not the way that Andrea and her family see it. The school said she could wear an ID without any RFID technology, but Andrea refused – saying that wearing the badge, and implying her participation in the program, would still be “worshipping a false god.” The school reassigned her away from Jay, a magnet school, to her home high school, which doesn’t use the IDs, the week before Thanksgiving

A local judge has issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the school from transferring her, and the case is now in the courts.

“The future of privacy is at stake,” says John Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer and president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil rights group in Charlottesville, Va., that is backing Andrea in the case.

The religious concern among some Evangelicals is “a sincere belief,” Mr. Whitehead says. And he notes that the school stopped Andrea from handing out pamphlets after school explaining her views.

He is also concerned about the fact that, without an RFID card, Andrea would not have been able to vote for homecoming king and queen and might have had only limited access to extracurricular activities or places like the library, as those activities are intertwined with the smart-card technology.


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