The lawsuit from the state chapter of the ACLU seeks a court order allowing Ariana Iacono to return immediately to Clayton High School, which has kept her on suspension for four weeks since classes started.
The complaint hinges on Iacono's claim that her nose piercing isn't just a matter of fashion, but an article of faith. She and her mother, Nikki, belong to a small religious group called the Church of Body Modification, which sees tattoos, piercings and the like as channels to the divine.
"This is a case about a family's right to send a 14-year-old honor student to public school without her being forced to renounce her family's religious beliefs," wrote lawyers from the ACLU and the Raleigh firm Ellis & Winters in a brief supporting the lawsuit.
The Johnston County school system has a dress code banning facial piercings, along with short skirts, sagging pants, "abnormal hair color" and other items deemed distracting or disruptive.
But the dress code also allows for exemptions based on "sincerely held religious belief," and says, "the principal or designees shall not attempt to determine whether the religious beliefs are valid, but only whether they are central to religious doctrine and sincerely held."
That's where the school stepped over the line, the lawsuit alleges, saying officials repeatedly dismissed explanations of the Iaconos' faith by the family and their Raleigh minister.
"We followed all the rules, so I don't understand why the school is being so unreasonable," Nikki Iacono said. "The dress code policy allows for a religious exemption, and I explained to the principal and various school officials how my daughter's nose stud is essential to the expression of our family's religious values."
Terri Sessoms, spokeswoman for Johnston County schools, said the district had received notice of the lawsuit, but officials can't comment on disciplinary actions involving individual students.
Ariana Iacono has been suspended four times since fall classes started, missing 19 out of 28 school days so far. On Monday, the school system denied an appeal of her most recent suspension, and told her she'd have to attend South Campus Community School, an alternative facility for students with disciplinary and other problems. She still wouldn't be allowed to wear the nose piercing in the other school.
Nikki Iacono, 32, joined the Church of Body Modification in 2009, and her daughter followed a year later. Their minister, Richard Ivey, thinks school officials are dismissing a little-known belief system simply because it's unfamiliar.
"I'm shocked that it's gone this far, but I guess I'm not surprised they'd be so quick to stick with their first judgment and not hear anyone else's reasoning," he said.