Hospital settles suit challenging restrictions on religious jewelry

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

Associated Press

After years of stifling her religious beliefs, Miki Cain felt set free when her husband gave her a small crucifix necklace one Christmas.

She wore it everywhere, she said, including to work at the University of Missouri Hospital in Columbia. When her supervisors there told her to take it off, Cain, a senior LPN, thought perhaps it was a safety concern. So she switched to a cross-shaped lapel pin, a half-inch long and a quarter-inch wide.

She was told that, too, was a violation of hospital dress code.

She refused to remove it, and was fired in January 1997. She filed suit a few months later.

On Monday, a settlement was announced. The hospital admitted the firing was a mistake and paid Cain $18,500. She was also offered her job back—with the right to wear the pin.

She’s not coming back—Cain, 25, and her husband have since moved to Fort Wayne, Ind. But she said the settlement was a small victory for religious freedom of expression.

“They did acknowledge they were wrong,” Cain said. “I can’t say I’m completely satisfied because I would have liked to have seen it go to court. The university got its hands smacked but I’m not sure they had to face the law with this.”

In a release, the hospital said it continues to support individuals’ freedom of religion and freedom of expression. In a letter to Cain, hospital director Patsy J. Hart wrote: “The decision to terminate your employment was unfortunate.”

The American Civil Liberties Union represented Cain in the lawsuit. Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU’s St. Louis office, said: “It is important to prioritize religious freedom over a lot of other considerations.

“We hope that the hospital now will understand that the right to freedom of religion outweighs their interest in having everybody look alike on the job,” Jacobs said.

The hospital’s dress code allowed employees to wear only professional lapel pins or seasonal holiday pins.

Cain said she grew up in a family that quietly attended church, usually Lutheran, never wearing their religion on their sleeve. But she secretly wanted to let her beliefs show.

“I have very strong spiritual beliefs,” Cain said. “I was kind of embarrassed to tell my parents how much I wanted (a crucifix). When I told my husband, that was the first thing he bought for me our first Christmas. That was the best Christmas present I ever had.”

She wore the cross on a gold chain around her neck until one day, when a supervisor at the hospital told her to take it off.

“I wasn’t sure what to do, so I switched to a little pin in case it was a safety issue,” she said. “Then I was told in more specific terms it was the cross.”

Cain is now active in a non-denominational church in Fort Wayne.

She is working two jobs—as a nurse and in a library. She is also preparing to attend law school, a decision spurred by her involvement in the case, she said.

Cain said she considered passing on the settlement, forcing the courts to address issues concerning expression of religious freedom. In the end, she said she settled because she didn’t want to appear out for money.

“Not every case is meant to be the one to set the precedent,” she said. “If my case can’t be the one, at least it had a lot of people talking and opened a lot of eyes.”