Federal District Court Opinions

11-27-2006) DAVID E. SIDELINGER, Plaintiff, v. HARBOR CREEK
SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant. Civ. No. 02-62 Erie. United
States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania. November 27, 2006


MAURICE COHILL JR., District Judge

Plaintiff David E. Sidelinger filed this civil rights
employment action against Defendant Harbor Creek School
District claiming that it violated his rights by failing to
accommodate his religious beliefs and terminating his
employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2 et seq.

A bench trial was held on March 20, 2006. Plaintiff was
represented by Paul J. Susko, Esquire. Defendant was
represented by Mark J. Kuhar, Esquire. At trial, testimony
was provided by Plaintiff David Sidelinger, and David A.
Smith, the superintendent of Harbor Creek School District.
At the conclusion of Plaintiff’s evidence the Court granted
Defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law in favor
of Defendant. We now issue the following opinion explaining
the basis for the ruling. Page 2

I. Factual Findings

Plaintiff, David A. Sidelinger, was a chemistry teacher at
Harbor Creek High School during 2000. He had been employed
by the Harbor Creek School District as a teacher since

Beginning in March 2000, the Harbor Creek School District
instituted a program requiring all Harbor Creek High School
teachers to display a photo identification badge at school
as part of its “Identification Project.” Prior to the start
of the program Mr. Sidelinger was instructed to see the art
teacher, who explained that he was going to take Mr.
Sidelinger’s photograph to be used for a photo
identification badge. Mr. Sidelinger refused to have his
picture taken, explaining to the art teacher that he
“didn’t do that.” (Tr. of Proceedings, March 20, 2006, at

Upon hearing of Mr. Sidelinger’s refusal to have his
photograph taken, David A. Smith, the Superintendent of
Harbor Creek School District had a letter hand delivered to
Mr. Sidelinger during school hours on Friday, March 3,
2000, stating, in part, as follows:

The purpose of this letter is to direct you to meet with
Mr. Zenewicz, Dr. O’Neil and me period 2 in my office on
Monday, March 6, 2000. As an option, we are open to period
2 today, March 3, 2000. The purpose of this meeting is to
discuss your stated refusal to be photographed for an
employee ID badge, implied refusal to wear such a badge
and our response. You will be asked to provide any reason
that may have caused you to take such a position.

(Pl. Ex. 2, Letter from Smith to Sidelinger, March 3, 2000.)

In response to this letter, Mr. Sidelinger composed a
letter consisting of his substantive response, which he
delivered to the administrative office on the morning of
March 6, 2000. (Tr. at 12 & 13.) The substantive response
letter was accompanied by a cover letter to Dr. Smith,
which explained that Mr. Sidelinger was seeking the
“strictest form of Page 3 confidentiality” with regard to
the enclosed sealed substantive response letter. (Tr. at
13-14, & Pl. Ex. 4, Letter from Sidelinger to Smith, March
6, 2000.) In his substantive response Mr. Sidelinger wrote:

To whom it may concern,

The actions of the Harbor Creek School District in
reference to the wearing of photo ID tags is not
acceptable due to very deep personal moral and religious
convictions that do not permit such actions.

David Sidelinger

(Pl. Ex. 3, Letter from Sidelinger to “To whom it may
concern,” March 6, 2000.)

At the request of Mr. Sidelinger, Dr. Smith met with him
during period 2 on Monday March 6, 2000. (Tr. at 14, 148.)
Only Mr. Sidelinger and Dr. Smith were present at the
meeting. (Tr. at 14.) In an attempt to understand the basis
for Mr. Sidelinger’s objection Dr. Smith asked Mr.
Sidelinger to explain what his beliefs and convictions were
and how they related to wearing the identification badge.
(Tr. at 147, 149.) Mr. Sidelinger explained to Dr. Smith
that his deep moral and religious convictions extend back
to his teenage years, and that he did not want to take part
in any kind of adornment. (Tr. at 15.) Mr. Sidelinger
explained that by “teenage years,” he specifically meant
when he was a Boy Scout and Eagle Scout. (Tr. at 15.) He
had earned awards that resulted in various organizations
offering to pin badges and buttons on him and “elevate
[him] to a God-like status.” (Tr. at 15-17.) He further
explained that although he did initially wear the
adornments at some point after he attained the rank of
Eagle Scout he ceased to wear any badges and thereafter
removed himself Page 4 from having anything to do with
self-adornment. (Tr. at 16.) Mr. Sidelinger then suggested
to Dr. Smith that instead of wearing the Badge he could
carry it in his wallet. (Tr. at 18.)

Mr. Sidelinger brought a tape recorder with him to the
next meeting he had with Dr. Smith on March 10, 2000. (Tr.
at 21.) Mr. Sidelinger explained that he wanted to record
the meeting for his legal protection since he did not have
a representative at the meeting. (Pl. Ex. 5, Transcript of
tape recording of March 10, 2000 meeting.) Dr. Smith
explained that the purpose of the meeting was not to have a
discussion but just to give him a warning, which he did as

David, I need you to think about wearing that badge over
the weekend, they are making one for you, if you don’t
wear it Monday, I am going to send you home without pay
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. (C[harging] P[arty]
Mumble) As I have indicated it is not a discussion, but I
want to be up front with you and I don’t want to surprise
you and say on Monday, hey your [sic] going home, I want
you to know what is coming, I want you to have a weekend
to think about it, weekend to get a representative, if you
want to discuss it on Monday, I’m glad, I will be glad to
do that, but that’s where I am, and I want you to know
that up front.

(Pl. Ex. 5.)

After the meeting Mr. Sidelinger picked up his temporary
identification badge and placed it in his wallet. (Tr. at
25.) The temporary ID Badge had Mr. Sidelinger’s name
printed on the face, the badge was laminated, and had a
safety pin on the back, but it did not have a photograph.
(Pl. Ex. 6, David Sidelinger’s Harbor Creek High School
Temporary ID Badge.)

On Sunday March 12, 2000, Mr. Sidelinger typed a
responsive letter, which he delivered to the school board
president, Cindy Himes, in person that same day. (Tr. at
26, 29-30.) He also delivered a copy of the letter to a
fellow teacher, Richard May, so that Mr. May could deliver
the letter to Dr. Smith on Monday. (Tr. at 28, 30.) Mr.
Sidelinger’s March 12, Page 5 2000 letter was addressed to
the Harbor Creek School Board and noted “Attn: President to
be shared with all Board members.” (Pl. Ex. 8, Letter from
Sidelinger to School Board, March 12, 2000.) The letter


— On Friday March 3, 2000 your superintendent Dr.
David Smith delivered the attached letter.

— On Monday March 6, 2000 I complied with the
letter dated March 3, 2000 with a written response which
is also attached. In addition a small conversation
between Dr. Smith and myself ensured. During the
conversation I suggested to Dr. Smith that the simple
solution, that would not be moral[ly] or religiously
offensive to myself, was placing an identification card in
my wallet similar to the student body.

— On Friday March 10, 2000 Dr. Smith again met with
myself to confirm that my moral and religious beliefs
would not be tolerated. At that time he asked me to
consider changing my moral and religious convictions over
the weekend. In addition he issued a verbal warning/threat
“that if I did not change my moral and religious
convictions that I would receive a three day suspension
beginning on Monday March 13, 2000”.

— On Friday March 10, 2000 the office issued an
identification card to myself. I placed it in my wallet.

These actions so precipitate the following:

The actions of Dr. Smith demonstrate religious
persecution. If the Board is in agreement with Dr. Smith I
will not be able to return to work within the District
under such a “cloud of persecution”. I will not indulge in
sins of pride. I will not indulge in sins of hypocrisy.

If the Board recognizes that moral and religious
differences exist within the community and some common
ground must be reached to accommodate those differences
then I would view Dr. Smith’s actions as a

To insure classroom coverage, I have phoned in a sick

(Pl. Ex. 8.)

After delivering the letters, Mr. Sidelinger telephoned
the school district’s answering system and stated that he
would not be in attendance at school on Monday due to
mental distress. (Tr. at 29, 30, 84, 86.) Mr. Sidelinger
did not come to school on Tuesday also, and Page 6 he did
not notify the school district of his absence in advance.
(Tr. at 32-33.) Consequently, Dr. Smith wrote a letter to
Mr. Sidelinger memorializing that Mr. Sidelinger had called
in an absence on Sunday evening, but that he did not
indicate in that call the date of absence, nor did he
indicate that he would have multiple absences. (Pl. Ex. 9,
Letter from Smith to Sidelinger, March 14, 2000.) Thus, a
substitute teacher was obtained for Monday, but not for
Tuesday, and the students in Mr. Sidelinger’s class were
left unsupervised for a period of time in the morning. (Pl.
Ex. 9.)

Dr. Smith also notified Mr. Sidelinger that this conduct
was unsatisfactory and that the district required a medical
excuse to substantiate his claim of mental distress. (Pl.
Ex. 9.) Mr. Sidelinger explained that having to call in
every day was a change in school policy. (Tr. at 33-35.) In
addition, because he was refusing to wear the badge and Dr.
Smith said he would be sent home if he refused to wear the
badge, it made no sense to Mr. Sidelinger that the school
district actually expected that he show up only to be sent
home. (Tr. at 31, 35, 37.)

Next, Mr. Sidelinger and the Principal of the High School,
Edward Zenewicz, had a telephone conversation about Mr.
Sidelinger not being in school due to not wearing the ID
badge. (Tr. at 35-36.) Mr. Zenewicz followed up the
telephone conversation with an email to Mr. Sidelinger on
March 20, 2000, which stated in part as follows:

I have talked with Dr. Smith regarding your concerns and
the misunders[]tandin[g]. Please note that the information
that you have written and Dr. Smith’s reply are already in
your file. . . .

2. You need to articulate your position in the
“misunderstanding” in the proper manner and not avoid
conversation by not being present.

(Pl. Ex. 10, Email from Zenewicz to Sidelinger, March 20,
2000.) Page 7

On March 21, 2000, Dr. Smith sent a letter by email and
regular mail to Mr. Sidelinger after he again failed to
show up for school and failed to notify the school that he
would be absent. (Pl. Ex. 11, Letter from Smith to
Sidelinger dated March 21, 2000.) Dr. Smith explained that
Mr. Sidelinger does “not have the option to stay away from
the school worksite.” (Pl. Ex. 11.) Dr. Smith also
addressed the ID badge issue as follows:

I know of no obvious “positive solution that can be
reached” because you have steadfastly refused to supply
requested information about your objection to wearing an
identification badge. Although I indicated that I required
more information about your objection, you chose to walk
out of a meeting with me rather than provide it. You also
avoided a similar conversation with your principal. This
information was required before the fact, not in a meeting
on your terms at your convenience. You have unilaterally
indicated that you will meet with me at 7:15 am Wednesday
March 22, 2000. I must indicate that this may be too late
for you to avoid serious repercussions. . . . And, be
advised, that I will not meet with you again given your
misstatements about our previous meeting(s).

(Pl. Ex. 11.)

Mr. Sidelinger testified at trial that it was incorrect of
Dr. Smith to say that Mr. Sidelinger had refused to supply
information about his objection to wearing an ID badge. (Tr.
at 39.) According to Mr. Sidelinger he had supplied the
information in his previous letter stating that he “had a
very sincere moral religious belief that did not permit
wearing badges.” (Tr. at 39.)

Mr. Sidelinger then met with Dr. Smith, Dr. Willard O’Neil,
and Mr. Zenewicz on March 22, 2000, in the administration
office. (Tr. at 39; Pl. Ex. 23, Termination Hearing
Transcript, April 24, 2000, at 35.) Mr. Sidelinger
testified that Dr. Smith posed three questions to him to
which he responded “no”. (Tr. at 40.) The three questions
were: “Are you ready to return to work?” “Do you have any
medical or doctor excuse?” and “Do you have anything else
you wish to add?” (Tr. at 40.) Following the meeting, Mr.
Sidelinger believed Page 8 that there was no possibility
of the school district accommodating him, so he turned his
keys into the principal. (Tr. at 40-41.)

Next, the president of the school board, Cynthia Himes,
sent a letter to Mr. Sidelinger dated March 27, 2000, in
which she stated in part as follows:

You have indicated to the administration that you “await
the formal reply to” your “letter dated March 12, 2000
from the board.”. . . . [H]ere is a response to your March
12, 2000 letter.

This board of school directors would never tolerate
religious persecution. Frankly, I do not see how wearing a
photo-identification badge infringes upon a religious
belief. It is my understanding that you have been asked to
provide details about your religious beliefs and that you
have refused to do so. If there is anything that you would
wish to provide as a basis of your objection, please
reduce it to writing and deliver it to Dr. Smith
immediately. You have been asked by the superintendent to
provide a basis for your objection. Please be advised that
the superintendent speaks for the school board in this

(Pl. Ex. 12, Letter from Himes to Sidelinger, March 27,
2000.) Mr. Sidelinger summarized this portion of Ms. Himes’
letter during testimony as “Basically, they didn’t
understand my religious belief. If anything you wanted to
add, you know, reduce it to writing and deliver it to Dr.
Smith.” (Tr. at 45.) Mr. Sidelinger responded to this
letter by way of email to Mr. Zenewicz, in which he
addressed his refusal to wear the ID badge as follows:

Miss Himes has stated that Dr. Smith is to reso[l]ve this
matter. At present I do not see a resolution at hand.
There is no question in my mind that the “cloud of
persecution” put into place on [F]riday March 10, 2000
still remains. Without question the best for all involved
would be for my return to the classroom. However, until[]
the District is prepared to accept my written reason for
not wearing the badge on its face value (there is nothing
to add) the “cloud of persecution” exist[s]. Again, I will
not indulge in sins of pride, I will not indulge in sins
of hypocrisy.

(Pl. Ex. 13, Email from Sidelinger to Zenewicz, March 29,
2000; Tr. at 50.)

Dr. Smith responded to Mr. Sidelinger’s March 29, 2000
email in a letter dated April 3, 2000, which was delivered
to Mr. Sidelinger by email and regular mail. (Pl. Ex. 16,
Email Page 9 from Smith to Sidelinger, April 4, 2000, with
attached letter from Smith to Sidelinger, April 3, 2000;
Def. Ex. 16, Letter from Smith to Sidelinger, April 3,
2000.) Dr. Smith stated that Mr. Sidelinger’s “continued
refusal to wear a photograph identification badge is
unacceptable conduct from a professional employee in the
Harbor Creek School District.” (Pl. Ex. 16.) Dr. Smith also
explained to Mr. Sidelinger that he was placing Mr.
Sidelinger on a one-week unpaid disciplinary suspension
“based on your continued, willful, refusal to wear a
photograph identification badge.” (Pl. Ex. 16.) Dr. Smith
further stated that Mr. Sidelinger’s “failure to abide by
the District’s call-in procedure aggravates the situation.”
(Pl. Ex. 16.) Dr. Smith elaborated on the identification
badge issue as follows:

You are instructed to appear at my office on Monday,
April 10, 2000 at 7:30 a.m. At that time, I will again
advise that you are required to wear a photograph
identification badge. If you agree to wear one, you will
be permitted to proceed to your classroom and to teach.
If, however, you again refuse to wear the badge, you
should know that I am reserving the right to continue your
suspension and recommend your termination as a
professional employee of the Harbor Creek School District.

I believe I have been more than patient with you. You
apparently claim that the wearing of the badge is a “sin
of pride” and “sin of hypocrisy.” Nevertheless, you have
failed to identify the religious creed or faith of which
you are a member and that subscribes to this belief. You
also have not explained why you believe that the wearing
of the photograph identification badge is a “sin of pride”
and a “sin of hypocrisy.” I believe I have been more than
willing to hear and understand your “side of the story.”
For whatever reason, you have not provided me with that

The wearing of a photograph identification badge is a
necessary part of the District’s ongoing plan to improve
safety in schools. In fact, more and more school districts
are using these kinds of badges to identify those
individuals who are authorized to be in school buildings.
As such, I think our request that you wear one is very

I hope that by the time we meet in my office on Monday,
April 10, 2000, you will have had the opportunity to
reconsider you position.

(Pl. Ex. 16.) Page 10

Mr. Sidelinger testified that this letter made it clear to
him that the district’s position had not changed and the
“only way [he] can return to teaching is wearing the
badge.” (Tr. at 52.) In addition, he testified that he “had
no reason to believe there was going to be any
accommodation.” (Tr. at 55.) Mr. Sidelinger responded by
email to Dr. Smith on April 7, 2000. (Pl. Ex. 17, Email
from Sidelinger to Smith, April 7, 2000.) In this email,
Mr. Sidelinger explained that he was in contact with civil
rights attorneys about the matter. (Pl. Ex. 17.) He also
stated that he was “a very old fashion latin Roman
Catholic.” (Pl. Ex. 17.) At trial he testified that he grew
up “back when the Mass and altar and everything was said in
Latin, quite conservative.” (Tr. at 54.) In his April 7,
2000 email to Dr. Smith, he also explained as follows:

I do not persecute others for their beliefs, however, in
addition to identifying with not participating in personal
adornment. I do not personally agree with other items such
as body piercing, tat[t]ooing, adult[e]ry, children out of
wedlock, divorce, and other actions which the District has
de[a]lt with in the past where great problems have been
allowed to exist due to religious and personal freedoms in
the District. You most likely are not aware of these items
due to being new in the District.

I must notify you that I will be there Monday for you[r]
meeting. However, as with the items listed and many more
that are sincere deep seated religious and moral beliefs I
have no intention of changing any of them.

(Pl. Ex. 17.) Although Mr. Sidelinger did meet with Dr.
Smith and Dr. O’Neil on April 10, 2000, he did not provide
any information regarding his objection to wearing the
Badge. (Pl. Ex. 23, at 43.)

The next communication came in the form of a notification
letter to Mr. Sidelinger informing him that he was being
charged with conduct believed to be in violation of the
Pennsylvania School Code. (Pl. Ex. 18, Letter from Himes
and Fuller to Sidelinger, April 11, 2000.) The letter set
forth the charges as follows: Page 11

Be advised that you are being charged by the School
District Administration of the Harbor Creek School
District with conduct that may fall into one or more of
the following categories enumerated in the Pennsylvania
School Code: persistent negligence in the performance of
duties, willful neglect of duties, and persistent and
willful violation of or failure to comply with school laws
of this Commonwealth (including official directives of and
established policy of the Board of Directors). The conduct
that is believed to have violated the School Code relates
to your refusal to wear a District-issued photo
identification badge. Aggravating this situation has been
your failure to call in and report absences beginning on
March 14, 2000. You had been warned about this behavior,
and most recently received a 5-day suspension for it.
Nevertheless, you continue to ignore the directives of the
Administration. It also has been alleged that despite
requests for you to provide additional information and
assistance in compiling the grades for your classes in
your absence, you have refused to do so.

(Pl. Ex. 18.) A hearing before the Board was scheduled for
April 24, 2000. (Pl. Ex. 18.) Mr. Sidelinger was also
notified that the Superintendent had suspended him without
pay pending the Board’s action. (Pl. Ex. 18.) The remainder
of the letter set forth Mr. Sidelinger’s rights, options,
and procedures relating to resolving the charges. (Pl. Ex.

Mr. Sidelinger attended the April 24, 2000 hearing before
the School Board. (Tr. at 57.) Attorney Mark Wassell
presented the Administration’s case through Dr. Smith. (Tr.
at 58.) Mr. Sidelinger chose to speak only briefly at the
hearing, and did not present any testimony or witnesses.
(Tr. at 58; Pl. Ex. 23, Termination Hearing Transcript.) On
May 1, 2000, the School Board voted to terminate Mr.
Sidelinger’s employment, citing the conduct given in the
notification letter as three independent reasons justifying
the termination. (Def. Ex. 26; Tr. at 59.)

Subsequent to his termination, sometime in the fall of
2001, Mr. Sidelinger posted a photograph of himself along
with a personal profile on two Internet dating services,
Match.com and AmericanSingles.com (Def. Ex. 25, copy of
3/27/02 AmericanSingles.com profile & copy of 3/26/2002
Match.com profile; Tr. at 101-102.) Through one of these
Page 12 services Mr. Sidelinger met and began an adulterous
relationship with a woman. (Tr. at 103.) The relationship
ended, however Mr. Sidelinger’s photograph and updated
profile remain active on Match.com at least as of February
28, 2006, more than four years after he first posted his
picture on this site and less than a month before trial.
(Pl. Ex. 25, 2/28/2006 Match.com profile.)