West Virginia judge rules school board violated teacher’s religious liberties

Thursday, January 6, 2000

A state court has found that a West Virginia school board should not have fired a popular high school teacher who refused to enforce an I.D. badge policy because of his religious beliefs.

Last year the Randolph County Board of Education fired Phillip Hudok, a physics teacher for 19 years at Elkins High School, for refusing to make his students wear identification badges with bar codes.

When the school board policy requiring all staff and students wear the badges went into effect last year, Hudok asked for and received an exemption for himself because of his religious beliefs. Citing Bible passages, Hudok maintained that the numbering of people signaled the arrival of the Antichrist.

But when Hudok permitted his students to discard their ID badges, the board fired him. He then hired the Rutherford Institute, a national law firm that handles free-speech and religious-liberty cases, and filed a complaint with the West Virginia Education and State Employees' Grievance Board. Last May, an administrative judge ruled that the board had subverted Hudok's religious liberties and ordered that he be reinstated with back pay and benefits.

The Randolph County board, however, asked the Circuit Court of Randolph County to overturn the administrative judge's ruling, arguing, in part, that it had accommodated Hudok's religious needs by giving him an exemption from the policy and that the I.D. badges were needed for security reasons.

Late last week, Circuit Court Judge John L. Henning upheld the administrative judge's decision. In a five-page opinion, Henning criticized the board for failing to accommodate Hudok's religious beliefs that students should not be forced to wear the badges. Henning said that those beliefs are protected by the First Amendment from impermissible government involvement. Additionally, the board's treatment of Hudok ran afoul of the federal law that requires employers to make efforts to accommodate employees' religious beliefs.

“This court takes no position on the accuracy or inaccuracy of Mr. Hudok's interpretation of the Bible,” Henning wrote in Randolph County Board of Education v. Hudok. “In the United States of America every citizen is free to interpret the Bible as he/she wishes and is free to practice a different religion or no religion whatsoever.”

Henning noted that the school board properly allowed Hudok to cover his I.D. bar code, but said the board erred when it fired him for refusing to make his students wear the badges.

“The Board of Education stipulated (agreed) that Mr. Hudok had a sincerely held religious belief, and the Board of Education further stipulated (agreed) that the Board of Education made no attempt whatsoever to accommodate Mr. Hudok on his religious belief,” Henning wrote.

Henning also did not buy the board's argument that the badge policy was adopted for security reasons. The judge quoted testimony of the school's principal and librarian that the bar code was only used for lunch records and checking out library books.

Steve Aden, chief litigation counsel for the Rutherford Institute, said Henning had produced a “conscientious decision that looked beneath the school district's claim that accommodating Mr. Hudok's religious beliefs would cause substantial hardship” to the school's operation.

“I think the bottom line is that the judge was right in essentially saying that a public employee's sincerely held religious beliefs are more important than an asserted, but transparent, justification,” Aden said.

Randolph County Superintendent H. Glen Karlen would not say whether an appeal of Henning's ruling would be sought. He said all questions about the situation were being referred to the board's attorney.

Calls by the First Amendment Center to Basil R. Legg Jr., the school board's attorney, were not returned.