Eureka Springs is not typically thought of as a hotbed of conservatism, the Christ of the Ozarks notwithstanding. But a recent event at Eureka Springs Middle School may put the town's liberal reputation to the test.
Seventh-grader Bobby Conway was denied the right to play on the boys' basketball team because he has long hair. His parents, Linda and Robert Conway, are suing the Eureka Springs School Board in Carroll Circuit Court, saying the school's denial violated Bobby's constitutional rights. The suit seeks $100,000 in damages and an order allowing Bobby to take part in games. Washington Circuit Judge John Linebarger is a special judge in the case. No hearing has been set.
In a town described by residents as a haven for artists, populated by hippies in the 1970s, why would the school system have a hair-length restriction for the boys' basketball team?
The fact is, it doesn't. Basketball coach Daniel Cornelison created the rule, Bobby's mother charges, because he thought long hair reflected poorly on his coaching.
Eureka Springs Middle School does not restrict hair length for members of the girls' basketball team. This disparity is a partial basis for the Conways' lawsuit, which claims the restriction against their son is unconstitutionally based on sex. The lawsuit said the coach's rule has “no reasonable justification … in terms of education or competitive needs or demands of school children.” Boys with long hair have been allowed to participate in soccer and track at the middle school, Conway said.
School Superintendent Reck Wallis refused to answer any questions about school policies.
A member of the board who spoke under condition of anonymity said the board gave Cornelison its tacit approval. “There really wasn't even a vote; it was just kind of a nod. It was discussed and we just all understood that we were behind the coach and his policy.” The board member added that there was never a thought that the situation might end up in court.
Bill Brazil, attorney for the school board, said the defense is challenging the jurisdiction of the circuit court to hear the case.
Linda Conway said the couple tried reasoning with the superintendent and only talked to a lawyer as a last resort. “It's just so much more than hair at this point,” she argues. “It's civil rights, it's discrimination, and if we don't stand up then who will stand up? Who will stand up?”
Like the town's own culture, where “diversity weekends” and fundamentalist attitudes rub shoulders, the town's response to Bobby Conway vs. the Eureka Springs School Board has been mixed. Linda Conway says most people seem to be supportive, but one mother she knows was afraid to be seen with her for fear that the school would keep her son from playing basketball. “Everyone's just amazed that it's gone this far, and me too,” Conway said.
At this point, Bobby Conway has no plans to cut his hair. He goes to the games and sits behind the team to cheer on his would-be teammates. For now, they won't let him play basketball, but once his beard comes in they might let him play Jesus in the annual Passion Play.