Religious clothing, like the one seen here, is banned for teachers in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. Courtesy Photo
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.
Last modified on Wednesday, 09 September 2009 23:40
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.
But the did law did not change the ban for teachers enacted in the 1920s, after that portion was opposed by the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that impressionable children should not feel indoctrinated by their teachers.
The laws' existence also surprised Mona Elgindy, a law student at Loyola University in Chicago, Ill. who wrote a paper on the issue. She is a Muslim and a former teacher.
â€œI kept doing research and research, and thought I must be finding something that's overruling this, or repealing the law, and there was nothing,'' Elgindy said.
In her paper, one of the few studies on religious clothing laws in recent years, Elgindy noted she could find no evidence that the laws statutes have ever been invoked by students. Rather, the recent legal history has been created by teachers trying to keep their jobs after administrators confronted them.
Court rulings in both Oregon and federal court in Pennsylvania rejected the claims by teachers and pointed out conflicts with the First Amendment: Teachers have a constitutional right to freedom of religion, but school districts must avoid supporting any religion.
Michael Kaufman, one of Elgindy's professors and an education law expert, said laws banning religious clothing used to be fairly common. But there has been a gradual shift away from them to protect teachers' religious freedom as long as it does not disrupt the classroom.
â€œIt's now sort of gone full circle,'' Kaufman said. â€œThe law now requires neutrality regarding religion, meaning the states or schools can neither favor nor disfavor religion.''
The few remaining bans â€œare really suspect constitutionally now,'' he said.
During her eight years as a teacher in the Chicago area, Elgindy said she never ran into a conflict over her style of dress and covering her hair.
â€œIt never was something that seemed to be in the way of my being a teacher,'' she said, adding it was often the opposite reaction. â€œThey said, 'Here's somebody of a different background who can bring diversity to the staff.' It was always seen as a positive thing.''
Tom Hutton, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, said he did not know of any significant pending cases that might test the bans.
â€œIt's really anybody's guess, but my own personal view is it would be more of an uphill battle to defend a religious garb statute than attack it,'' Hutton said.
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.