The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Senate Bill No. 84 this past week.
This action eliminates the law that penalizes public school teachers for wearing religious garb while in the performance of their duties. What led to the passage of SB 84 and what impact it will have on Pennsylvania public schools?
Amendment to the Public School Code
SB 84 repeals Section 1112 of the Pennsylvania Public School Code of 1949, which prohibits public school teachers from wearing religious garb while in the performance of their duties.
Taking effect in sixty (60) days, public school teachers will be allowed to wear any dress, emblem, or insignia that indicates their religious faith or denomination. Pennsylvania public school teachers are the last educators to gain this right, as all other states have repealed similar provisions.
What Did Section 1112 Prohibit?
Section 1112 prohibited a teacher from wearing any garb, mark, emblem or insignia that would indicate that they are a member of or adherent to any religious order while in performance of their teacher duties.
Under Section 1112, a teacher’s first-time violation of this ban would have resulted in suspension from teaching for a minimum of one year. Upon a second offense, the teacher would be permanently disqualified from teaching in that school.
Moreover, a public school director could have been held criminally liable and required to pay a fine for failing to enforce this prohibition.
How Did We Get Here?
The constitutionality of Section 1112 has been challenged in the past. In the pivotal 2003 case of Nichol v. Arin Intermediate Unit 28, the United States District Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania held that the school’s religious affiliations policy violated the Free Exercise of Religion and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Ms. Nichol, an instructional assistant at a public elementary school, was suspended for refusing to remove or conceal a small cross necklace. Ms. Nichol, who felt that the cross was a symbol of freedom for her, filed a complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief and a motion for a preliminary injunction. Her basis was that Section 1112 of Pennsylvania’s Public School Code was unconstitutional.
In his opinion, Judge Arthur J. Schwab found in favor of Ms. Nichol’s complaint, directing Arin Intermediate Unit 28 to reinstate Ms. Nichol to her former position within the elementary school. This case represented a turning point in the Commonwealth’s view on school employees’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression.
General Assembly Takes Action to Enhance Religious Expression
Following the court’s decision in Nichol, that state senate took action to repeal Section 1112. The passage of SB 84 unanimously in the state senate and in a 201-1 vote in the house proves that there is bipartisan support from legislators to enhance teachers’ rights to religious expression.
Schools should plan ahead and prepare measures to address these potential conflicts, while ensuring they do not violate their educators’ First Amendment rights.
Bottom Line for Schools
School Districts must be prepared to act, because upon signature of Governor Josh Shapiro, SB 84 will become law and take effective in sixty (60) days. Pennsylvania public school districts have approximately three (3) months to implement updated district-wide policies that follow the new standards of Public School Code.
KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group is prepared to assist you in navigating this new law and its potential complications.
School leaders with questions should contact their solicitor or one of the Education attorneys at KingSpry.