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Texas schoolgirl loses case over RFID tag suspension

Unchipped card somehow still 'the mark of the beast'

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A federal court has ruled against the Texan teenager who was challenging her suspension for refusing to wear an RFID tag, despite objections on religious and privacy grounds.

Last November, Andrea Hernandez, 15, was expelled from the John Jay Science and Engineering Academy in San Antonio, Texas after refusing to take part in a pilot "Student Locator Project," which tracks students anywhere in the school via RFID tags worn on a lanyard. Students need them to get food at the cafeteria, vote in school elections, or to take bathroom breaks.

Hernandez declined to wear the tag on religious and privacy grounds. The school offered to let her use a lanyard without an RFID tag, but this too was declined. She was suspended from school, but that was lifted after a legal case was filed on her behalf by John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.

On Tuesday, the court ruled that the Northside Independent School District (NISD) was within its rights to force Hernandez to change schools to one not using the RFID system and upheld the principle that students should wear the tags. The judge also came to the conclusion (PDF) that Hernandez's religious rights were not breached because the district had agreed to allow the 15-year-old to remove the RFID chip and wear an unchipped lanyard which looked like those of the other students. But Whitehead told The Register the ruling ignored several factors and Supreme Court rulings and vowed to appeal.

“The accommodation offered by the district is not only reasonable it removes plaintiff’s religious objection from legal scrutiny all together,” US District Judge Orlando Garcia.

"We're going to go all the way on this," he said. "If someone disagrees religiously or constitutionally [to the RFID system] can they opt out? That's all we're asking here."

The issue was not going to go away, he warned, with another 200 schoolchildren now refusing to wear the RFID badges. Rutherford said that the purpose of the scheme wasn't pupil safety, but so that it could confirm attendance numbers for extra funding, and said there are strong commercial pressures to expand the $500,000 pilot program, which is paid for from the education budget.

So far there has been no sign of any more hacking activity against the school following the verdict. A hacker claiming to be affiliated with Anonymous took down the school's website after the initial expulsion, but there is no sign of any reaction to the latest news.

The mark of the beast

Ms Hernandez's privacy complaints are understandable, and she would hardly be alone in not wanting to be tracked constantly, but her spiritual complaint is rather more esoteric. It stems from the belief that the tags represent the 'the mark of the beast' quoted in the Bible's Book of Revelation 13:16-18

"And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads," the King James Bible reads. "And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six."

Some biblical literalists, of which there are many in the US, take this to warn of RFID tags and other tracking technology. Others view the entire Book of Revelation as a fanciful piece of imagination, a satire on the Roman political situation in the first century AD, or simply that the author John liked to party as much as the next man.

"We firmly believe that it is our Hell Fire Belief that if we compromise our faith and religious freedom to allow you to track my daughter while she is at school it will condemn us to hell," Hernandez's father wrote in a letter to the court, the San Antonio Express reports.

The family will be filing for an appeal immediately, Rutherford said, but it may be that Ms Hernandez will be forced to leave the John Jay Science and Engineering Academy this month, although a staying order may be granted.

"Today's court ruling affirms NISD's position that we did make reasonable accommodation to the student by offering to remove the RFID chip from the student's smart ID badge," the school district told El Reg in a statement.

"The family now has the choice to accept the accommodation and stay at the magnet program or return to her home campus at the start of the second semester, Jan 22, 2013." ®

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