Judge says teacher’s religious liberty violated, orders reinstatement

Tuesday, May 11, 1999

ID cards at iss...
ID cards at issue are similar to Elkins High School Principal Tom Pritt's card.

A West Virginia high school teacher has received his first victory in a legal fight against the public school district that fired him for refusing to enforce a school policy for religious reasons.

Last week an administrative law judge in Charleston ruled that Elkins High School physics teacher Philip Hudok's fundamental rights were subverted when the Randolph County Board of Education voted to fire him in February for refusing to make his students wear identification badges.

Late last year the school board announced a policy requiring students, staff and faculty to wear ID badges including name, photo and a bar-code number. The policy, implemented primarily for security reasons, disturbed Hudok because of his Christian belief that numbers assigned to people mean that the Antichrist has arrived. Citing passages from the Bible, Hudok asked for and was granted an exemption. However, in a letter to the school district's superintendent in December, Hudok stated that he “cannot and will not require the students to wear their IDs. It is plainly and simply a matter of religious conviction. First Chronicles chapter 21 in the King James Holy Bible is clear.” Because of his refusal to make his students wear the ID badges, the board voted to fire him early this year.

Represented by the Rutherford Institute, a religious-liberty law firm based in Virginia, Hudok filed a grievance with an administrative law judge in February seeking a reversal of the school board's decision.

Administrative Law Judge Lewis G. Brewer ruled that Hudok's religious liberty was violated by the board and ordered the board to reinstate Hudok, grant him back pay and benefits, and dump the firing from his personnel records.

Brewer wrote that Hudok's religious liberty was protected while at work by a federal civil rights law that bars private and public employers from religious discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against workers because of their religion. The law, moreover, states that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” to workers' religious beliefs unless they can demonstrate that doing so would cause “undue hardship” on the operations of the business.

Hudok's “refusal to enforce RCBE's [Randolph County Board of Education's] identification badge policy for religious reasons substantially parallels [other cases in which an] employee's refusal to solicit another employee to work on the Sabbath, the employee's refusal to hand out selective service registration forms, and the employee's refusal to process applications for tax-exempt status from organizations promoting abortions,” Brewer wrote. “Accordingly, the RCBE had a duty to accommodate [Hudok's] religious beliefs in regard to enforcement of the identification badge policy at Elkins High School.”

The school board voted 3-2 last night to appeal the administrative judge's ruling to a circuit court judge in Randolph County. Attorneys for Hudok have agreed to a stay of the ruling while it's on appeal.

Basil R. Legg Jr., the board of education's attorney, derided the judge's ruling as “grossly erroneous.”

Legg said that the judge first found Hudok patently insubordinate, but “then manufactured out of whole cloth without any case law or precedent a right of a school teacher not to enforce student behavior rules because of religious beliefs.”

Legg said the decision would amount to “letting any teacher pick and choose any school policy they don't want to enforce, saying it violates their religious freedom. We accommodated Hudok's personal religious beliefs and we in Randolph County believe in religious freedom, but we have to draw the line and must have our students abide by policies.”

Frank Bush, a cooperating attorney for the Rutherford Institute in Elkins, and Kim Gilmer, a staff attorney for the institute, said they were pleased the judge recognized that the federal civil rights law also protected Hudok from having to force his students to wear the ID badges.

“In think the important issue is that the judge recognized that Hudok was not trying to assert the right of the students, but that he was merely asserting his fundamental right not to require his students to participate in what he believes is an evil or unholy requirement,” Gilmer said. “I think school officials have a genuine interest in making sure teachers are following policy, but those policies have to yield to the fundamental rights of employees, especially when those rights can be accommodated without substantially interfering with those policies.”

Bush said that the judge recognized that the school board “never tried to make a reasonable accommodation,” of Hudok's religious beliefs.

The school board, Brewer wrote, “made no effort to accommodate [Hudok's] religious objections to enforcing the identification badge policy and did not establish that any reasonable accommodation of [Hudok's] refusal to enforce the policy would create more than a de minimus hardship on its operation of Elkins High School.”