Coalition seeks repeal of Klan-era ban on religious garb in Oregon schools

2 5 2010 cross

Religious freedom advocates have asked the Oregon legislature for an immediate repeal of a decades-old law that bars Oregon teachers from wearing religious dress in public schools. The law, originally an anti-Catholic measure, was implemented with the support of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Current Oregon law bars religious Jews from wearing yarmulkes, religious Sikhs from wearing turbans, and religious Muslim women from wearing a headscarf.

According to the Oregonian, the law was designed to prevent priests and nuns from wearing their clerics and habits in the classroom. It was part of a bill that barred Japanese-Americans from owning property in the state.

A coalition of interfaith civil rights and bar association organizations, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sent a letter to state legislative leaders asking for the repeal of the law.

“It is amazing that Oregon, of all places, would want to keep religious minorities from getting a fair shot at public school jobs,” Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director at the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund, said in a press release. “Why should anyone care if Mr. Singh wears a turban while teaching physics class?”

The law was upheld in a 1986 Oregon Supreme Court decision. The Oregonian reports that the court sided with the Eugene School District when it fired a Sikh teacher for wearing a turban, as is required by her faith.

The Oregon ACLU is leading supporters of the ban on religious clothing. They have argued that allowing religious clothing could lead to the indoctrination of children.

Oregon ACLU director David Fidanque has told the Oregonian that repealing the law could endanger the “religious neutrality” of public schools.

He reported his organization has received many complaints charging that some schools do too much to promote Christianity. Fidanque also voiced concern that lifting the ban on religious dress could lead some teachers to wear Jesus T-shirts or take other steps to evangelize at school.

Rassbach was critical of the ACLU affiliate’s support for the ban.

“You wouldn’t think that the ACLU would be channeling the Klan. But sadly the ACLU is doing everything it can to keep religious Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and Catholics from being public school teachers.”

Oregon is one of three states that forbid public school teachers from wearing religious dress in the classroom.

Other laws backed by the Klan in Oregon included a 1922 law which required children to attend public schools, threatening the existence of Catholic parochial schools. A Catholic religious order helped launch legal challenges to the law, which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1925 ruling Pierce v. Society of Sisters.

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