By Michael Peabody – This month we have a couple of big stories coming out of the great Pacific Northwest. In Oregon, the legislature has passed a bill championed by the Northwest Religious Liberty Association that overturns a 87-year-old law that prohibited teachers from wearing religious dress in the classroom. It is presently sitting on governor Ted Kulongoski’s desk awaiting signature.
This was the surviving part of a package of laws that was put into place in 1923 after the KKK had convinced Oregon voters to change the state’s constitution to require all students to attend public schools, and consequently prohibit all private education, including religious education. The voters had been given the notion that public education was the only way to keep students from being taught all kinds of off-beat ideas such as racial tolerance in private schools. In order to keep the now unemployed Catholic teachers from working in the public schools, they prohibited public school teachers from wearing religious dress. At the same time, Christian teachers could wear a cross or other small items, but Jewish yarmulkes and Sikh turbans were prohibited, and teachers wearing them would not only be required to go home and change – they would lose their teaching license.
Over time, the cause of prohibiting teachers from wearing religious dress was taken up by the ACLU and other church-state separation absolutists, despite the fact that the bill had enough loopholes for Christian teachers, but prohibited other people whose faith required them to wear religious dress from entering the teaching profession.
This law was upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court in the 1980s when a Sikh teacher was kicked out of the profession for wearing her religious dress even though she made it clear that she was wearing it as part of her personal religious commitment and had no intention of converting her students to her religion. Although it was purely a cultural issue, Oregon’s Sikh boys and girls in the public schools would soon learn that they could never expect to teach in the classrooms where they were learning. Neither could Orthodox Jews or members of other faiths who were required by their beliefs to wear certain types of dress.
During the early 2000s, as the Northwest Religious Liberty Association and other groups worked toward a Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA), the ACLU didn’t have a problem with the bill, which required employers to make reasonable attempts to accommodate religious employees’ holy day observance and religious garb, but they did have a problem applying this law to teachers.
Because of this exclusion, at one point, the Sikh organization SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) actively called for the governor to veto the WRFA legislation unless teachers were also covered. They had experienced firsthand the effect of the educational exemption when a teacher was fired for wearing her Sikh cultural / religious dress, and wanted to make sure it was covered. The promoters of WRFA met with the Sikh community and expressed solidarity on the educational exemption, and indicated that they would be back once WRFA passed to work on clean-up legislation the next session that would fix this problem.
As promised, the next year, Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt and other legislators influenced by a multi-faith lobby put a law on the table that would overturn this decades old exemption, and as a result of these efforts, Oregon has joined the 47 other states that will make reasonable attempts to accommodate the religious dress of teachers.
This does not mean that teachers who wear particular dress as part of their sincere religious practice can try to convert their students, after all the Establishment Clause is still in place, but they are no longer excluded from the field of teaching. Legislators had to balance the interests of protecting children from potential proselytizing while protecting the rights of teachers. I believe that the Oregon legislature struck the right balance in overturning this ban. However, we will need to be vigilant on the other end to protect the rights of parents to direct the religious upbringing of their students.
What this bill does is recognize that the United States is a diverse country made of people of many faiths – although Americans don’t all have to believe the same thing, we do need to learn to live together in peace and should not discriminate against reasonable teachers because they have to wear certain things as part of their faith.
For previous articles on this subject see:
EXCERPT: 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 …
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