- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

A Pennsylvania teacher’s aide has been suspended for a year without pay for wearing a cross pendant in the classroom.A federal discrimination lawsuit was filed Tuesday on behalf of Brenda Nichol against Armstrong-Indiana Intermediate Unit 28, a government agency in western Pennsylvania that provides educational services. Mrs. Nichol has been employed by the agency for eight years.Mrs. Nichol said she was notified April 4 that a 1¼-inch-long cross pendant she was wearing on a chain around her neck would have to be concealed by clothing or removed when she worked at Penns Manor Area Elementary School in Clymer.Intermediate units are part of the public education system in Pennsylvania. They were created primarily to provide services to school districts that could be operated more effectively and efficiently on a regional basis.Armstrong-Indiana officials say the Christian symbol violates the unit’s policy, as well as the Pennsylvania Public School Code’s prohibition against school employees wearing religious garb and insignia. The law dates to 1895.Mrs. Nichol refused to comply with the policy, saying that hiding or removing her cross would be acts of “denying Christ as her Lord and Savior” in violation of her religious beliefs.When Mrs. Nichol showed up for work wearing the cross April 8, she was suspended immediately. On April 16, she was notified by the educational unit that the suspension would be for a year and without pay.”The actions taken by this agency represent a serious violation of our client’s constitutional rights,” said Vincent McCarthy, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing Mrs. Nichol, a resident of Glen Campbell, Pa.”The law is very clear on this issue: School personnel do not shed their constitutional freedoms when they enter the schoolhouse door.”The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, said the agency’s action violated the First and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act.The lawsuit asks the court to declare the unit’s policy and the state’s religious garb and insignia law unconstitutional. It also wants Mrs. Nichol to return to work and have the suspension removed from her employment records.In an interview yesterday, Robert Coad, executive director of the Armstrong-Indiana unit, said the penalty imposed on Mrs. Nichol “seems awfully extreme,” but that Pennsylvania’s Public School Code calls for the action.The statute bars public school employees from “wearing any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating they are members or adherents of any religious order, sect or denomination” when they are on duty.It also calls for a one-year suspension for anyone who violates the law. In case of a second offense, the employee would be fired.Mrs. Nichol said in a telephone interview yesterday that she first learned in 1997 that the state barred religious garb and insignia, but never adhered to the policy because she saw fellow teachers wearing religious symbols.The American Center for Law and Justice argues that the Pennsylvania law, last updated in 1949, violates the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in December.”That law bolsters free exercise of religious expression and requires the state to show a compelling reason to overcome it,” Mr. McCarthy said.But Mr. Coad countered that the state law has “already been tested in federal court and found to be constitutional.”The ban on religious garb in schools was upheld in 1990 by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. In that case, a Muslim teacher from that city wanted to wear traditional religious garb, including a head scarf, but the court rejected it.As for efforts by the center to apply the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Restoration Act to Mrs. Nichol’s case, Mr. Coad said the ruling by the 3rd Circuit found it was “compelling to state interests to maintain religious neutrality” in public schools.”If people are concerned about the law, the place to address it is at the state legislature,” Mr. Coad said.

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