LOUISVILLE, Ky. A federal judge has ruled that a library’s dress code that prevented a worker from wearing a necklace with a cross pendant is an unconstitutional violation of free speech.
The employee, Kimberly Draper, was fired for refusing to take off the pendant, which she said she wore as an expression of her religious faith.
Draper sued the Logan County Public Library in February 2002 in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green.
In ruling against the library, Judge Thomas Russell dismissed library director Linda Kompanik and assistant director Sherryl Appling as defendants.
The dress code prevented library staff from wearing clothes or ornaments depicting religious, political or potentially offensive decoration.
In April 2001, Appling told Draper she could wear the cross under her clothing. Several days later, Draper again wore the cross necklace. Appling told Draper that she would have to remove the necklace or be sent home for the day. Draper decided to go home.
Kompanik later told Draper that her refusal to remove the cross amounted to insubordination. Kompanik said she believed Draper had quit by leaving work, but Draper replied that she had no intention of quitting. Kompanik then fired her.
The library said the dress code was meant to avoid the appearance of religious favoritism and protect librarian impartiality on issues that could come up in questions from library patrons.
Russell ruled that the library policy violated free speech and free exercise of religion, which are protected under the First Amendment.
Russell said that Draper’s wearing of her cross was “neither disruptive nor controversial until the library dress code made it a source of contention.”
“It is simply beyond credibility that an employee’s personal display of a cross pendant, a Star of David, or some other minor, unobtrusive religious symbol on her person would interfere with the library’s purpose,” Russell wrote in his ruling late last week.
Attorneys for both sides received copies of the opinion yesterday.
Draper’s attorney, Frank Manion, said the ruling “underscores the fact that employees have constitutional rights to express their faith in the workplace” as long as it doesn’t interfere with the work setting.
“The fact that our client was fired for wearing a cross pendant on a necklace to work is not only absurd but unconstitutional as well,” said Manion, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, an organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
“This decision sends an important message that employers cannot discriminate against employees who choose to express their religious beliefs in the workplace.”
Charles “Buzz” English Jr., attorney for the library, said he was reviewing his client’s options, including a possible appeal.
English said government agencies face a “very difficult balancing test” in trying to preserve free-speech rights while avoiding any actions that could be perceived as promoting one religion over others.
Russell wrote that allowing library employees to wear cross pendants or other unobtrusive displays of religious beliefs “would not excessively entangle the government with religion.”
Draper did not ask for reinstatement to her library job but was seeking monetary damages. Russell is expected to address that issue later.