Phillips-Hill, Schwank: New Law will Assure First Amendment Right to Freedom of Religious Expression

HARRISBURG – A new state law assures the First Amendment right to freedom of religious expression for every Pennsylvanian according to the bill’s sponsors, Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and Judy Schwank (D-Berks).

The act eliminates the section from the state’s Public School Code that prohibits teachers from wearing any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicative of their faith or denomination. Pennsylvania is the last state in the nation to remove this provision from its books.

“What started as an Indiana County teacher being suspended without pay for wearing a cross necklace to work has finally concluded in Act 26, ensuring that no one has to check their constitutional rights at the classroom door,” Phillips-Hill said. “It has been a pleasure to work with Sen. Schwank to get this bipartisan legislation that upholds William Penn’s founding principle of religious freedom across the finish line.”  

“Today, a significant step has been taken to uphold Pennsylvania’s cherished value of religious freedom. I am proud to see Senate Bill 84 formally signed into law, bringing an end to an outdated restriction that has long hindered the expression of one’s religious beliefs in our classrooms,” Schwank said. “This legislative achievement was accomplished with overwhelming bipartisan support and, at last, aligns Pennsylvania with the rest of the nation, erasing our status as the sole state upholding such a prohibition in state law. I applaud Sen. Phillips-Hill for her strong leadership on this issue and all the work she did to help us earn this great accomplishment!”

A federal court case was brought forward in 2003 after a Pennsylvania teacher was suspended from her job pursuant to Section 1112 of the Public Education Code as well as the intermediate unit’s religious affiliations policy. Her suspension was due to her refusal to comply with her supervisor’s request that she remove or conceal a small cross she regularly wore on a necklace. The court ruled in favor of the teacher, who was rehired with back pay. However, the law was in place for over a century. The original law was pursued by the Ku Klux Klan, which fought to put in place this prohibition on teachers who were practicing Catholics from displaying their religion in the classroom. Many other states put in place similar prohibitions on teachers using the Pennsylvania law as a model.

Over the last several decades, every other state legislature has removed this provision with Nebraska being the most recent state to address this issue in 2017. With Act 26 of 2023, Pennsylvania is the final state to remove this anti-First Amendment language from its Public Education Code.

Act 26 will take effect in 60 days.

AUDIO (Phillips-Hill)

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