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January 19, 2023

Pa. senators make push to allow freedom of religious dress for teachers across the state

The current state education code bans educators from wearing hijabs, cross necklaces or yarmulkes in the classroom

Pennsylvania senators are hoping the third time is the charm when it comes to eliminating an antiquated section from the state's education code that prohibits teachers from wearing religious dress in the classroom.

A bill unanimously approved by lawmakers this week would allow educators the freedom to wear any clothing, mark, emblem or symbol that indicates an affiliation with any religion or sect, putting an official end to a guideline that has not been strictly enforced for 20 years.

The legislation was led by co-sponsors Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill and Judith Schwank, who cited the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Schwank believes that eliminating the rule could encourage more people to become educators.

"This long overdue legislation needs to reach the governor's desk to make Pennsylvania the 50th state to eradicate this archaic law once and for all," Phillips-Hill said. "With its broad, bipartisan support from legislators and a diverse coalition of stakeholders, this bill will uphold William Penn's founding principles that our Commonwealth stands for religious freedom and tolerance."

Pennsylvania is the only state with legislation prohibiting teachers from wearing religious-based clothing or accessories in the classroom. Under the new bill, educators would be free to express themselves, whether as a Christian wearing a cross pendant, a Jewish person wearing a yarmulke or a Muslim wearing a hijab.

Under the state's education code, anyone wearing religious dress can be suspended for an entire year. After subsequent infractions, teachers can permanently lose their jobs.

"It's a First Amendment right to express your religious beliefs. Everyone, and most certainly our educators, should be free to exercise that right in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This is not an endorsement of any one religion; it allows people of all faiths to express themselves," Schwank added. 

Comparable bills have been introduced by the state Senate twice recently, The Morning Call reports. The first attempt stalled in the Senate Education Committee during the 2019-2020 session. During the 2021-2022 session, a new version was unanimously approved by the state Senate; however, it failed to reach a final vote in the House. 

A precedent was set in 2003 after U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab determined that an Indiana County teacher aide Brenda Nichol had not caused disruption or distraction by wearing a cross necklace. By way of this ruling, most schools across the state stopped enforcing the rule.

Nichol was suspended from her job for wearing the necklace in the classroom at Penns Manor Area Elementary School in Clymer, a borough in the county. After the ruling, she was reinstated with full back pay.

"Society really has moved past the historic concerns that caused policymakers to include this ban,” Chris Lilienthal, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, told The Morning Call.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects any grooming or dress practice motivated by religious beliefs. That includes adherence to shaving or certain hair lengths, avoiding particular items of clothing (such as pants for Pentecostal, Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women) and wearing religious jewelry or accessories.

The bill now moves to a vote in the State House of Representatives.