High School Unfairly Confiscates Rosaries Allegedly Linked to Gang

Denying right to wear rosary hinders religious freedom. Photo by Taylor Sanger/The Minaret

Manuel Vigil, a high school junior in Loveland, Colo., had his rosary confiscated twice by staff at Thompson Valley High within the first three weeks of school this year. Vigil told Fox News that he wears his rosary in reverence and because it makes him feel safe, but the school officials think they are symbols of violence and gang support. The school’s accusations are ridiculous. I was born and raised in the Catholic faith and for us, a rosary is a sacramental, blessed object used in devotion and prayer. If you remove someone’s right to have or wear a rosary, you are taking away their religious freedom.

The most commonly used rosaries have five decades, each with 10 beads, that represent a mystery or event in the life of Jesus. These decades are separated from each other with a single bead. This rosary is also deemed the traditional rosary, often referred to as the Dominican Rosary, but it is not the only type. Other rosaries will have varied numbers of decades or beads in each decade, but do not change the meaning or use of it for those of faith.

According to Denver’s Fox news station KDVR, the Thompson Valley District claims that the beads can be linked to gangs and gang violence because Vigil’s rosary had 13 beads per section. District officials told KDVR that those 13 beads “can be associated with the Sureño gang.” Sureño means “southerner” in Spanish, and according to the Gang Prevention Services these gangs are largely made up of Mexican-Americans or “Chicanos.” These gangs identify with the Mexican mafia and use the number 13 as an identifier, symbolizing “M” as the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. The Thompson Valley principal, Mark Johnson, told the Reporter Herald that they meet with the gang prevention unit regularly and the unit tells them what to look for. They then use that information to keep track of “what is the latest gang stuff” and make rules accordingly. It is important that the district is doing all it can to keep gang violence and promotion out of its high schools, but confiscating an item of prayer is going too far.

Vigil had two rosaries confiscated, and though one of them did have 13 beads in each decade, the other had only the traditional 10. What was the reasoning for confiscating the second rosary if it had no symbolic link to gangs? Margaret Crespo, a Thompson Valley District spokesperson, told Fox News that Vigil had other options. She said that before they confiscated the beads, he had been given two opportunities to remove it or tuck it inside his shirt. However, Vigil told reporters that he wasn’t given the chance to tuck his rosary into his shirt, but received one demand and had his beads removed.

Crespo told Vigil that he didn’t give them any option but to confiscate the rosary because of his refusal to cooperate. But why should confiscation be an option? The second rosary that he wore to school had the traditional 10 beads per decade. So the impression the district is giving is that it is not okay to wear any rosary, and that is wrong. I understand restricting the 13 beaded rosary if there is a gang problem in your area, but to deny students the right to wear their rosaries is disrespectful to their religion and traditions.

Catholic rosaries are not meant to be worn as a necklace. The superficial wearing of a rosary is blasphemous, but if you feel unsafe, are afraid of losing it or want to hold it closer to your heart, you can wear it. Vigil told reporters that he wore his rosary to feel safe, and his mother, Antoinette Ramirez, told the Reporter Herald that he started doing so after the recent murder of his uncle.

I believe that the Thompson Valley school district is unwise in its handling of the situation. According to the district, Vigil has had no prior problems in school and is not affiliated with a gang. Even so, the school is denying him religious freedom based on the number of beads per section on a rosary. One of my main problems with this fact is that as soon as a gang’s symbol is restricted, the group will most likely come up with another symbol. So, to include this religious item of reverence in a list of banned objects is ridiculous because rosaries have been around for hundreds of years as a means of prayer. A modern affiliation should not be allowed to disrespect religious traditions and practices.

An editorial in the Denver Post argues that Thompson Valley High is treading on unsteady ground with this situation due to its strong link in our constitutionally protected right to freely exercise religion. The paper also notes that a federal court previously ruled in favor of students that had rosary beads confiscated for a separate case. The court noted that the school dress codes “can be used to restrict gang activity on campuses” but concluded that “the rosary ban unduly burdened the students” because “they were not affiliated with a gang.”

This is a remarkably similar situation. Vigil stated that he is not a member of a gang or trying to start a turf war but just wanted the feeling of safety that comes with wearing his rosary. I feel that the school should apologize to Vigil and his family for all of the chaos and confusion, return his rosaries and remove the restriction they have placed on the wearing of rosaries. People of faith deserve the right to the comfort that they are provided by their traditions, prayers and sacramentals.

Elaina Zintl can be reached at elaina.zintl@spartans.ut.edu

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