Appeals Court Upholds Pa. Ban On Religious Garb in Public Schools

September 05, 1990 3 min read

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled last month that an 1895 Pennsylvania law showed an intent to bar the wearing of religious apparel in the classroom to “keep an atmosphere of religious neutrality.”

Alima Reardon was fired from her teaching job in the Philadelphia School District in 1985 because she insisted on wearing a head scarf and a long, loose dress in accordance with her Muslim religious beliefs.

Ms. Reardon filed discrimination charges, and a federal district judge ruled against the state and the school district, saying that the 1895 “garb statute” discriminated because it was intended to bar Roman Catholic priests and nuns from public-school teaching jobs.

An appeals court panel unanimously overturned that ruling, noting that the statute had been reaffirmed in 1949 and that it banned all religious attire in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Legal experts said it was the first federal appellate-level decision on religious garb. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a 1986 decision by the Oregon Supreme Court that upheld a state law barring teachers from wearing religious attire.

A federal judge has struck down a Florida law that allowed school districts to strip teachers of tenure after their 70th birthdays.

U.S. District Judge William J. Castagna last month ruled that the Pinellas County school board had discriminated against Salvatore J. Maffei, a 73-year-old vocational-education instructor, by replacing his tenure with an annual decision on whether to renew his employment.

“Simply because of his age and not because of any alleged incompetency, [he] has no expectation of employment for the next year,” the judge wrote in his opinion.

Bruce P. Taylor, the school-board lawyer, said the district was complying with state law when it revoked the tenure of Mr. Maffei and three other teachers, whose tenure will now be restored.

Although many school districts apparently ignored the 1965 law in recent years, several still stripped teachers of their tenure after they turned 70, according to Donald C. Tyler, a senior trial attorney for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which brought the case.

“It points out the rationale [for] the Age Discrimination and Employment Act,” Mr. Tyler said. “Different people decide to retire at different times.”

The Maryland Board of Education has sent Gov. William Donald Schaefer an ambitious $174.8-million school-reform package proposed by state Superintendent of Schools Joseph L. Shilling.

The package, approved by the board last month, is part of a $2.4-billion education budget for fiscal year 1992. The reform measures include $100 million for the city of Baltimore and the state’s seven poorest counties; mandatory kindergarten for 5-year-olds; the establishment of 111 pre-kindergarten classes; $32 million for elementary schools to develop alternative-education programs; and the first phase of a four-year, $45-million computer-purchasing program.

But the board did not accept Mr. Shilling’s most controversial and expensive proposal--a 20-day extension of the school year that would have cost $187 million. The board also delayed for a year Mr. Shilling’s proposal to raise the age of compulsory attendance from 16 to 18, but agreed to seek a new law, which would take effect in 1992, to raise the age.

A federal judge in Georgia has upheld a Reconstruction-era practice under which grand juries appoint the school boards in 27 Georgia counties.

Judge Duross Fitzpatrick, ruling in a 1988 class-action lawsuit filed by a south Georgia minister, found that the plaintiffs had failed to prove their contention that the practice was designed to discriminatet blacks.

Although the plaintiffs established that the law had been passed while the state legislature was controlled by “white supremacists,” the judge wrote, that evidence alone was not enough to prove that the 1872 Education Act was passed for discriminatory purposes.

At the time, the judge noted, some counties had problems fielding enough candidates for school-board posts. “The public election of county school boards was not a successful method for electing school board members,” he wrote.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Appeals Court Upholds Pa. Ban On Religious Garb in Public Schools