At 15, Elisa Cazares was a student leader at the Tohono O' Odham High School on the reservation of the Tohono O'Odham Nation in Arizona. The school is operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior. To some of the children under its supervision, the bureau could be on Mars.
Elisa Cazares had been on the honor roll for every report period, was one of four members of the student body government and was active in a number of other student activities.
John Janousek, a teacher of mathematics and science at the school, says that "she is the brightest student I have seen come through this school system."
In the fall of 1989, when the school, for the first time, received a charter entitling it to select and induct members of the National Honor Society, Elisa Cazares was a logical nominee. After all, the Honor Society's purpose is to recognize "students who reflect outstanding accomplishments in the areas of academics, character, leadership and service."
Cazares, who was already talking of going on to the University of Arizona and maybe law school after that, also thought she would be nominated.
The high school's selection committee, however, found her unworthy. According to an affidavit by John Janousek, who was on the committee -- as well as other evidence presented at the subsequent trial -- the initial reason given within the committee was that Cazares was pregnant.
But that turned out not to be the reason. Not by itself. On the list of students who were qualified by the committee for membership in the National Honor Society were two other pregnant girls and two teenage fathers. How did Cazares differ from them? Because, according to the majority of the selection committee, she was not living with the boy who had fathered her child.
Janousek, however, kept trying to remind his colleagues of her academic and leadership achievements in the school.
In the courtroom, U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marques asked Gerald Frank, the assistant United States attorney defending the banning of Cazares, how he could argue the significance of her not living with the father "when she may not have any control over that?"
Cazares' astute and indignant lawyer was Lynn Elaine Saul, then managing attorney of Papago Legal Services. She argued that her client had been denied due process and equal protection of the laws under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In reporting on the trial, the Arizona Daily Star quoted the assistant U.S. attorney as saying blithely, "It's possible to put a constitutional spin on anything these days."
Judge Marques decided that the reason for Elisa Cazares' rejection had been that she was "pregnant, unmarried and not living with the father of her child." The selection committee, he went on, had also discussed how the community might view that relationship.
Yet, the judge continued, a male student who had fathered a child "and was not living with the child's mother was accepted as a candidate . . . with no discussion by the selection committee as to his status as a father or his relationship with the child's mother."
As Lynn Elaine Saul had said at the trial, "what we have in this case is direct sex discrimination."
The judge ruled that the selection committee had applied "a constitutionally invalid standard" in finding Cazares unfit for the honor and that her due process and equal protection rights had indeed been violated. Also violated were her rights under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendment, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, marital or parental status.
No student, the judge ruled further, can be inducted into the National Honor Society at the school unless and until Elisa Cazares is among them.
She is saddened. ("I guess it was never meant to be.") James Allen, a social studies teacher and chairperson of the National Honor Society chapter at the school, says it's unfortunate that the students involved must suffer, but "if we were to allow a federal judge to dictate selection procedures, then where does it stop?"
When the school recognizes the Constitution.
Meanwhile Elisa Cazares has transferred off the reservation to a state public school west of Tucson. She is living with the father of her child. And at her old school, no one can be inducted into the National Honor Society.