Pa. Senate votes to strengthen First Amendment rights for teachers

This Week in Pennsylvania

Image of Christian book with cross on its cover on wooden background

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — On Monday, the Pa. Senate unanimously approved a measure aligning the commonwealth with every other state in the nation, ultimately preserving and protecting teachers’ First Amendment rights.

The measure was sponsored by Senators Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and Judy Schwank (D-Berks), and eliminates a section of the Pa. Education Code prohibiting teachers from wearing any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating his or faith or denomination.

“The Senate took a major stance today to show our unified support of protecting our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression,” Phillips-Hill said. “A teacher should not be worried about his or her job for simply wearing a cross on a necklace. Our First Amendment rights do not end simply because a teacher walks into a classroom.”

Although Pennsylvania is the only state with this section in its education code today, the keystone state’s original 1895 law served as a model for many other states that created “anti-First Amendment” laws.

“It’s about time we join the rest of the country in abolishing a rule that serves no use,’ Schwank said. “Punishing teachers for something as innocuous as wearing a cross necklace or hijab doesn’t help anyone – certainly not students. In fact, it’s better for students to be exposed to people who are different from them. It’s a way to foster more acceptance and empathy as they grow into adults.”

In 2003, a Pa. teacher was suspended after refusing to comply with a request that she remove or conceal a small cross she wore on a necklace. As a result, a federal court case was brought forward.

“The court ruled in favor of the teacher, who was rehired with back pay,” the Pa. Senate said in a release.

The court’s ruling found that the intermediate unit’s religious affiliations policy violates the free exercise of religion and free speech clauses of the First Amendment.

Senate Bill 247 moves to the House of Representatives for its consideration.

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