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Teacher's aide back on the job, permanently

Friday, August 29, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Indiana County teacher's aide Brenda Nichol, suspended for wearing a cross in school, has won back her job permanently under a settlement reached yesterday in U.S. District Court.

Nichol, an aide at Penns Manor Elementary School, and her lawyers from the Virginia-based American Center for Law & Justice got everything they wanted.

As part of a joint stipulation agreement, Nichol's employer, ARIN Intermediate Unit 28, agreed to remove any mention of the incident from her work record and get rid of its rule prohibiting dress or jewelry that has a religious significance.

The settlement essentially makes permanent a preliminary injunction approved in June by U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab.

Schwab had ruled that Nichol, 43, of Glen Campbell, 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.

Instead of a hearing, though, the parties hashed out an agreement, which still 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.

"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. 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."

Nichol was working yesterday and couldn't be reached.

The center, a public interest law firm founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, filed suit on her behalf in May, saying ARIN unfairly suspended her without pay for refusing to remove her cross.

ARIN, which provides support services for various school districts, said the state school code and its own policy forbids teachers from wearing religious symbols.

But Schwab ruled that the intermediate unit's policy violated Nichol's right to free speech and said it was "openly and overtly averse to religion" because it singled out religious symbols while allowing jewelry containing secular images.

"ARIN's 'Religious Affiliations' policy thus displays, in purpose and effect, decided hostility toward religion, without any important or compelling state interests served," Schwab said.

One sticking point had been how the state statute should apply to Nichol. It says teachers can't wear religious symbols, but it doesn't say anything about teacher's aides. ARIN lawyer Richard Tucker had argued that common sense dictates the law covers anyone who appears before students. But Schwab ruled in favor of Nichol on that issue, too, saying the law doesn't apply to her because she isn't a teacher.

Schwab had also said the cross didn't cause any disruptions in school.


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

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