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Suspended teacher's aide sues employer over wearing cross on necklace

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A teacher's aide in Indiana County filed a federal civil rights lawsuit yesterday against her employer, saying she was unfairly suspended from her job for a year without pay for refusing to remove a small cross she wears on a necklace.

Brenda Nichol tells reporters yesterday how much she misses her students. The teacher's aide from Indiana County was in Pittsburgh to file suit after her employer suspended her for a year for wearing a cross on her necklace. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Brenda Nichol, 43, of Glen Campbell, said school officials violated her rights to freedom of speech and religion.

Nichol, who works at Penns Manor Area Elementary School in Clymer, is asking to be reinstated by her employer, ARIN Intermediate Unit 28, which provides educational support to students in Armstrong and Indiana counties.

According to the lawsuit, she was notified last month that she couldn't display her cross in class. ARIN officials said the cross violates their policy and the state's prohibition of religious garb under the Pennsylvania Public School Code.

Nichol had been told of the ban in 1997 and was warned twice since March that wearing the necklace was cause for suspension. She said she refused, "after prayerful consideration," because the cross symbolizes her religion.

"I knew I was not to deny my Lord, Jesus Christ," she said yesterday outside the Federal Courthouse, Downtown.

She was referring to a Bible verse in which Jesus says, "If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my father in heaven."

"As a Christian," wrote her lawyer, Vincent McCarthy, "Brenda Nichol desires to express her identity as a Christian (belonging and wed to Christ) through wearing a cross on her necklace, as a symbol of her faith, and believes to remove or hide that cross beneath her clothing is an act of denying Christ as her Lord and Savior, which she cannot do without violating her religious convictions."

McCarthy is senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Last month, the group said it planned to file the lawsuit.

ARIN Executive Director Robert H. Coad Jr. said he couldn't discuss the specifics of the complaint or personnel matters, but he said the code is designed to protect students, a "captive audience." He said case law has shown that the state has an interest in preserving religious neutrality in schools.

The problem with not enforcing the ban, he said, is that children see the symbol and ask questions about it. That's fine for most people in a case involving a cross in a predominantly Christian community, Coad said. But what if someone wears a symbol that offends Christians, such as a pendant related to witchcraft.

The ban on religious garb in schools has been upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania. In that case, a Muslim teacher from Philadelphia wanted to wear traditional garb including a head scarf. The court ruled in 1990 that she couldn't.

But McCarthy said in the lawsuit that religious symbols can't be banned unless there is evidence that they disrupt the operation of the school, and Nichol's cross, which is about an inch long, didn't cause any such disruption.

Nichol said yesterday that being asked to remove her cross is like being asked to remove a wedding ring. She also complained that religion is "systematically being removed from society."

The lawsuit names as defendants ARIN, Coad and several other supervisors and asks that a federal judge declare the school's policy and the state's ban to be unconstitutional.

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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