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Religious Freedom for Teachers on Trial in Pennsylvania

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the cornerstone of American religious tolerance. Among other things, it says the government cannot endorse a particular religion or prevent someone from expressing his or her religious beliefs. On the surface, those two mandates seem pretty compatible. But what if a public school teacher wants to express her religious beliefs in the classroom? Should she be allowed to do that, as an individual who also happens to be an employee of the state? It's a question American lawyers and educators have been grappling with for decades. But in the state of Pennsylvania, the question's made more complicated by a 19th century law that originally had nothing to do with religious tolerance.

Last month, Brenda Nichols was suspended for a year without pay from her job as a teacher's aid in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her infraction? Wearing a two and a half-centimeter cross pendant on a chain around her neck. Education officials told Ms. Nichols she'd have to conceal the cross whenever she was working with students. But Brenda Nichols refused. Now, she's suing to get her job back.

Her attorney, Vincent McCarthy, of the American Center for Law and Justice, says the grounds for her case are simple. "Violation of her first amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. Free speech means she should be allowed to wear this pin. People wear pins all the time. People wear crosses all the time. They're not fired from their job or suspended from their job. And neither should she be," he says.

But not everyone is a schoolteacher, like Brenda Nichols. Not everyone is paid by the state to have a very influential role in the lives of children. And because of that, says Brian Jones, lead attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, teachers, perhaps more so than other Americans, are forced to deal with the reality that there's an inherent conflict in the first amendment. "There's a tension there between the freedom to express one's religion, and the freedom of speech, but also the establishment clause, which precludes the government from establishing a state religion," he says. "And schools have to be mindful about the fact that a teacher or an administrator, when they're making an expression, is, in some sense, an authority figure. And so the line may be in a different place."

The U.S. Department of Education isn't actually involved in the Brenda Nichols case, since it's a state concern, not a federal one. But the agency has published guidelines for school administrators, as they try to navigate the first amendment. And under those guidelines, it would seem that Brenda Nichols' cross pendant isn't a strong enough endorsement of Christianity to be a concern. Except that in Pennsylvania, things are a little bit different.

Robert Coad is director of the state agency that hired Brenda Nichols in 1995 to work with students. He says she was suspended not because of the first amendment, but because of Pennsylvania state law, enacted in 1895, that says public school teachers who wear religious symbols at work must be suspended for a year. "Interestingly, it was actually anti-Catholic in nature. Apparently, in 1894, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling said that the state of Pennsylvania could not keep priests and nuns from wearing their religious garb if they were teaching in the public schools," he says. "So apparently at that time, the Pennsylvania legislature turned around and said, "OK, well then here's a law that says that no one may wear religious garb, insignia, or emblems, no teacher may wear those, in the public schools."

Robert Coad says although the law may have its roots in religious intolerance, nowadays, it's an important mechanism for protecting the rights of children who are not among the state's Christian majority. Mr. Coad says if people want the law repealed, they should talk to their elected officials not to him. But he also says they should be careful what they wish for. "Once you open up the wearing of religious garb and insignia to everyone who's working in the public schools, then there's no telling what kind of religious garb or insignia you're going to see," he says. "And while this may be a largely Christian community which sees no problem with people wearing crosses, I can guess that if some other things were being worn, and satanic emblems always come to mind, I can imagine that a number of people in our community would be very offended by a teacher wearing a pentacle, or an insignia of Christ crucified upside down."

Meanwhile, Brenda Nichols' discrimination lawsuit awaits hearing before a federal judge in Pittsburgh. According to her attorney, Vincent McCarthy, Ms. Nichols just wants her job back. She isn't looking to have Pennsylvania's religious garb law declared unconstitutional, unless that's what it takes.

But Mr. McCarthy says his group, the American Center for Law and Justice, is interested in challenging the constitutionality of the law. The organization was founded by conservative televangelist Pat Robertson. Vincent McCarthy says even if Brenda Nichols is reinstated tomorrow, he still wants to take the state of Pennsylvania to court. And he's already spoken to several teachers who are willing to help him do that.