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Editorial: Cross over a cross / Overreacting to an employee's religious jewelry

Thursday, May 08, 2003

This newspaper strongly believes in the separation of church and state -- and of church and public school.

We believe the U.S. Supreme Court was right four decades ago to rule that public schools could not force children to participate in prayers and Bible readings. We also recognize that government employees in a variety of contexts surrender some of their free speech during working hours.

That said, we wish school authorities in Indiana County had not prohibited a teacher's aide from wearing a small cross on a necklace in class. The order has prompted the aide, a devout Christian, to file a federal lawsuit claiming religious discrimination.

Officials told Brenda Nichol she could not wear the cross because of a prohibition in the state School Code of religious garb in the classroom. Contemplating the slippery slope that lawyers are trained to anticipate, an official of the intermediate unit invoked the hypothetical case of a school employee who wore not a cross but a pendant related to witchcraft.

It's not a bad debating point, and for good measure the official could have added that Christian parents who cheered on Ms. Nichol probably would raise an unholy ruckus if one of their children's teachers sported a satanic symbol.

Yet there is more to law, and life, than abstract consistency. Apparently the teacher's aide's cross was not disruptive and she did not proselytize, which would have been out of bounds by anyone's reckoning.

There is a maxim that goes: "De minimis non curat," which roughly translates as "the law does not bother with trifles." Or to put it more colloquially, some legal issues are no big deal. This seems to be one of them.

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