Cady Mansell, 9, was so excited for her first communion that she had an outfit picked out weeks in advance.
The Indiana fourth-grader has been into fashion, particularly bowties and pantsuits, since she was 4 years old, frequently going shopping with her mother for stylish outfits.
Her mother, Chris, 34, had bought Cady an all-white pantsuit for the big day when she was informed on Sept. 27 that Cady would not be able to wear it for the ceremony on Oct. 1 because it violated the church's dress code.
"She got emotional when I originally told her, 'You can't wear the suit,''' Chris told TODAY Style. "She said, 'I've worn suits to church before, why won't they let me?' She said, 'I don't want to wear a dress but if you want me to, I will,' and I thought, this is not OK."
Chris, who was a teacher's aide at Cady's Catholic school, St. John the Evangelist, said she was called in to meet with school administrators who had gotten word that Cady planned to wear a suit to communion.
"Never did I think it was about Cady's suit,'' she said. "I was in such shock that I didn't know what to do."
She was told that if Cady arrives wearing a suit, she cannot participate in first communion, but a deacon will give her communion after the Mass.
The school sent a dress code to parents in August stating that girls must wear a traditional white dress with white shoes and then updated it on Sept. 21 to say no exposed arms in sleeveless dresses, according to documents emailed to TODAY. Any girls wearing sleeveless dresses, which meant straps with bare shoulders, had to cover their arms with a sweater.
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Chris initially suggested putting a skirt over part of Cady's suit. Then she spoke to other mothers who said they were bringing their daughters in sleeveless dresses because the dress code update didn't leave enough time before the ceremony to get sweaters.
"So I said to (principal Brianne Oliver), are you going to stop them from taking part in the ceremony, and she said, 'No, we wouldn't do that,''' Chris said. "That was what made me refuse to back down."
The church maintains that most sleeveless dresses do cover the shoulder, so there was no violation of the dress code by those other children.
"St. John the Evangelist uniformly enforces dress codes at our parish school and for religious rites,'' the church said in a statement to TODAY. "We have requests for exceptions to the dress code every year, ranging from sneakers to the color of one's shirt; thus, we have consistently chosen to adhere to the dress code rather than allowing a myriad of exceptions to it. The dress code provides consistency between all students and ensures the the focus of first communion is on Jesus Christ rather than attire."
Chris wrote about her frustration in a message to the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, writing, "My sweet girl is heartbroken."
Chris's husband, Richard, accompanied Cady to a communion practice on Sept. 28, where Chris said he was called in to speak with the Rev. Sammie Maletta, the pastor of the school.
"Maletta said, 'You're raising your daughter wrong,''' Chris said. "You're the parent, you tell her she's wearing a dress and she's wearing a dress, that's how it works. What he was getting at was that we were letting Cady be a little boy."
Since the story became widespread, Chris said she has heard from people asking if Cady is transgender.
"She's only 9,'' she said. "She more identifies with Jedis and storm troopers (from Star Wars)."
Cady also wears her hair short because she shaved it earlier this year for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer research. While pantsuits have become synonymous with Hillary Clinton, Cady is more into fashion than politics.
Once Chris heard about the parenting comment from Maletta, she emailed him that night to say they were leaving the church after 5 1/2 years. They transferred Cady and her younger sister, Anabelle, 8, to St. Mary Catholic Community School in their hometown of Crown Point, Indiana.
"We told the girls that Father Maletta doesn't like the idea that we let you dress how you want and how you feel comfortable and beautiful, so since we think so differently (from him), it's time to find a new school,'' Chris said.
The Mansells made St. Mary's aware of the situation before they enrolled the girls and were told it was not an issue. Cady has still not made her first communion because St. Mary's holds theirs for children in third grade so her new classmates have already had theirs.
The family is happy to have moved on and found a new home for the girls.
"There are more important things to worry about than other people's children and what they choose to wear,'' Chris said.
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