religious-clothing-in-the-cGroup letter calls for repeal of Oregon law that forbids public school teachers from wearing religious dress in the classroom

Click here for a PDF showcasing the BJC’s involvement in this issue in Oregon

February 4, 2010

The Baptist Joint Committee and a diverse group of interfaith, civil rights and bar association organizations sent a letter to Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt and Senate President Peter Courtney urging the immediate repeal of an Oregon law that forbids public school teachers from wearing religious dress in the classroom.

According to the letter, Oregon currently is one of only three states that forbid public school teachers from wearing religious dress.

Originally enacted in the 1920s as an anti-Catholic measure, ORS 342.650 specifically denies public school teachers the right to wear clothing with religious significance while teaching. It was supported by the Ku Klux Klan at a time of hostility toward racial and religious minorities.  A violation of that law will result in suspension or dismissal for the teacher involved (as stipulated in another Oregon law, ORS 342.655).

“The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution affords sufficient protection against state endorsement of religion, and banning all forms of religious dress for teachers is a prohibitively overbroad approach to the issue,” the letter states. “[I]t is increasingly common to find teachers wearing yarmulkes (headcoverings), hijabs (headscarves), and dastaars (turbans) in public schools throughout our diverse nation.”

The letter’s signers generally supported the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act which passed in the summer of 2009, but “were dismayed to learn that it specifically exempts public school districts, education service districts, and public charter schools from its coverage.” The letter states, “This discriminatory exemption denies equal employment opportunity to religious minorities and simply cannot be reconciled with the spirit behind workplace religious freedom legislation.”

House Speaker Dave Hunt championed the 2009 WRFA legislation, and he has told media outlets that he plans to work on repealing the ban on religious dress in the 2010 special session. Hunt has a unique connection to religious liberty issues – he served a two-year term as the national President of American Baptist Churches USA, which is one of the supporting bodies of the Baptist Joint Committee.

The letter mentions concerns from proponents of the current law who claim that allowing public school teachers to wear religious dress would eliminate religious neutrality in the classroom. But, Baptist Joint Committee General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman says there is a stark difference between wearing a religious garment and wearing clothing with a direct proselytizing message.

“Wearing a cross necklace or a religious headscarf is not the same as wearing a button or T-shirt with a religious message,” Hollman said.  “Neither teachers nor their students should have to leave their faith at the schoolhouse door.”

Citing the nation’s “growing commitment” to religious freedom in the workplace and “our desire to give a greater measure of security to our constituents through strong and principled workplace religious freedom laws,” the signatories called on the Oregon House to repeal ORS 342.650 and ORS 342.655 and to amend the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act to ensure that public school teachers in the state are provided meaningful protection.

“Oregonians [should] have a fair opportunity to find self-fulfillment and economic security in any career they choose,” the letter concludes.

In addition to the Baptist Joint Committee, signers included the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, Anti-Defamation League, Asian Law Caucus, Japanese American Citizens League, North American Religious Liberty Association, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), The Sikh Coalition, South Asian Bar Association of Northern California, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The Baptist Joint Committee is a 74-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.