A teacher’s aide suspended for wearing a cross in school has won back her job under a settlement yesterday in federal court.
Brenda Nichol, 43, an aide at Penns Manor Elementary School in the Pittsburgh area, and her lawyers from the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice got everything they wanted, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
Nichol’s employer, ARIN Intermediate Unit 28, has agreed to abolish its rule barring religious jewelry or dress and to strike the incident from her work record.
The settlement makes permanent a preliminary injunction approved in June by U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab, the Pittsburgh paper said. Schwab had ruled Nichol must be returned to her job at Penns Manor with full back pay and benefits and said the order would stay in effect until a hearing.
The two parties decided to work out an agreement, however, which must be approved by ARIN officials next month.
“This is a very important victory upholding the constitutional rights of our client, who merely wanted to express her faith outwardly by wearing a small cross pendant on her necklace,” said the center’s senior counsel, Vincent McCarthy, in a statement, according to the Tribune.
“Our client is back to work, and we are working now to ensure that she will never again face this type of religious discrimination in the school system,” he said. “We were convinced from the beginning that the suspension was not only wrong, but unconstitutional, and we’re pleased that the initial ruling of the court which supported our position is now permanently in place.”
As WorldNetDaily reported, Nichol’s employers suspended her 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. Nichol 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 said 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, 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.