AP, Apr. 25, 2003
(AP) (Glen Campbell, PA) A teacher’s aide is challenging her one-year suspension without pay for wearing a cross necklace, which officials say violates a Pennsylvania Public School Code prohibition against teachers wearing religious garb.
“I got suspended April 8, 2003, for wearing a cross to work and not being willing to either remove it or tuck it in,” said Brenda Nichol, 43, of Indiana County.
Officials at ARIN Intermediate Unit 28 wouldn’t comment on Nichol’s case specifically, but said their employee handbook is based on the school code and prohibits all employees from wearing religious garb. ARIN supplies teachers aides and other services to 11 school districts and two technical schools in Armstrong and Indiana counties.
Nichol acknowledges she was told of the prohibition as far back as 1997, and was warned twice since March that wearing the necklace was cause for suspension. Under the school code, she could be fired for a second offense.
“I think the public needs to know that there is a code out there that is against our freedom,” Nichol said. She has enlisted the help of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Virginia-based public-interest law firm founded in 1990 by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson. The group plans, but has not yet filed, a federal court lawsuit.
“We get cases about teachers’ rights to religious expression in school all the time, whether they can have a Bible on their desk or religious artifacts in their office,” said Vincent McCarthy, senior counsel at the ACLJ’s office in New Milford, Conn. “What usually happens is we send a demand letter and the case is resolved. They rarely if ever go to court.”
“Where the line is drawn is when what the teacher wears or has with them … has reached the point where you could say it becomes an endorsement of a particular religion by the school,” McCarthy said. He doesn’t believe that happened in Nichol’s case.
But ARIN’s executive director, Robert H. Coad Jr., believes the school’s policy is reasonable and based on firm legal ground.
Coad said the law is meant to protect people of all faiths from being offended. The same law would prohibit a teacher from wearing a pendant or emblem related to witchcraft, for example.
“How would the people of our community deal with people wearing such things in a public school classroom?” Coad said.
The state’s religious garb prohibition was passed in 1895 and incorporated into the school code when it was established in 1949. It has since been upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Coad said.
In that case, a Muslim teacher from Philadelphia – backed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -wanted to wear traditional garb including a head scarf and long, loose dress. The EEOC said that would have been a “reasonable accommodation” of her religious faith, but the appeals court disagreed in 1990, saying “the preservation of religious neutrality (in public schools) is a compelling state interest.”
A similar law in Oregon was upheld by that state’s Supreme Court in 1986 for the same reasons, according to The First Amendment Center, a constitutional rights group that is part of the Freedom Forum.
Still, that group – in “A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools” – suggests teachers probably still have the right “to wear non-obtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David. But teachers should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message (e.g., a ‘Jesus Saves’ T-shirt).”
McCarthy thinks the whole question is ridiculous considering the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, signed into law in 2000 by then-President Clinton. Among other things, the law also protects the right of inmates to wear religious garb – like Muslim skull caps – in prisons that receive federal money.
“Under (that law) prisoners have more freedom to express themselves by their garb than school teachers,” McCarthy said.