A federal district court judge in Pittsburgh ruled yesterday an educational agency that suspended an employee from her job for wearing a cross pendant violated the woman’s constitutional rights in doing so.
The American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, the public-interest law firm that filed suit on behalf of the teacher’s aide, said the action represents a victory for the First Amendment.
“We’re delighted that the court acted to protect the constitutional rights of our client,” said Vincent McCarthy, Senior Counsel of ACLJ, in a statement. “By granting our motion for a preliminary injunction, the court realized that the policies and actions of the state educational agency were not only wrong, but unconstitutional as well. … The decision sends a strong message that laws and policies that result in religious discrimination are not acceptable.”
As WorldNetDaily reported, officials at ARIN Intermediate Unit 28 in Pennsylvania suspended Brenda Nichol, 43, for one year for refusing to stop wearing a one-and-a-quarter-inch cross, which they said violated a Pennsylvania Public School Code prohibition against teachers wearing religious garb. The woman is an eight-year employee of the agency.
“I got suspended April 8, 2003, for wearing a cross to work and not being willing to either remove it or tuck it in,” she told the Indiana Gazette in April.
Crosses and Stars of David are examples of prohibited jewelry under the state’s law on public schools, according to Dr. Robert H. Coad Jr., executive director of ARIN.
The ARIN handbook says employees may wear a cross or other religious jewelry as long as it cannot be seen by others.
Of the regulation, Nichol said at the time the suit was filed: “I could not follow that code in my heart. I could not deny Christ.”
In a 42-page order granting a motion for preliminary injunction, according to the ACLJ statement, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur J. Schwab said the state statute does not apply to Nichol because of her teacher’s aide position, but that if it did it would be unconstitutional.
The policy is “openly and overtly averse to religion because it singles out and punishes only symbolic speech by its employees having religious content or viewpoint, while permitting its employees to wear jewelry containing secular messages or no messages at all,” the order said.
The court concluded ARIN’s policy violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and ordered that Nichol be reinstated to her former position with full back pay and benefits pending final disposition of the case at a hearing Aug. 28.