PORTLAND, Ore. – A law backed by the Ku Klux Klan nearly a century ago to keep Catholics out of public schools is still on the books in Oregon, one of the last states in the nation to prohibit teachers from wearing religious clothing in classrooms.
Both Pennsylvania and Nebraska have similar laws, which try to balance the constitutional conflict between protecting students from the establishment of religion in schools and the rights of teachers to express their beliefs through their dress.
Oregon’s law, originally aimed at priest collars and nun habits, survived a legal challenge in the 1980s by a Sikh convert who wanted to wear her turban in the classroom and was recently upheld by the state’s Legislature.
A Muslim teacher in Pennsylvania lost a similar challenge in 1991 to that state’s even older law for the right to wear a headscarf at school. So far, it has not posed any serious legal issues in Nebraska.
That such a law still exists was a surprise for many Oregonians who learned about it when Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act in July, allowing workers to wear religious clothing on the job.
Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt wanted to include teachers in the new workplace law. But it was opposed by the ACLU during a legislative session dominated by the recession and one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.
Dave Fidanque, ACLU executive director for Oregon, said the law helps ensure religious neutrality in public schools even though times have changed. “It’s not an easy issue,” he said.
Schools have been battlegrounds because “those who feel very strongly that their particular brand of religion is best feel the need to have their religion endorsed by public schools to attract more followers to their beliefs,” Fidanque said.
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