Oregon Act: No Religious Attire in Schools?

Oregon State Capitol, Photo by Bonnie King

Oregon State Capitol, Photo by Bonnie King

I wrote a post last week about a resolution to add the Muslim holidays to school calendars in New York. Today, I head over to the other coast of the United States where a new act intended to broaden religious freedoms has several groups, among them Muslims and Sikhs, worried over one of its clauses. The Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act (Senate Bill 786) requires employers to accommodate employees’ observance of religious holidays and wearing of religious apparel in the workplace place provided that it doesn’t pose significant difficulty or expense to the businesses. On its surface this seems like a positive and tolerant step towards religious diversity.

However, one clause in the act states:

“No teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher. A school district, education service district or public charter school does not commit an unlawful employment practice under ORS chapter 659A by reason of prohibiting a teacher from wearing religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.”

In other words, public schools are specifically singled out as workplaces where religious freedoms do not apply. Oregon is one of two states, the other Pennsylvania, that forbid teachers from wearing religious attire. This clause, which was already on the books in Oregon, reads for a number of groups as in fact going against the very spirit of the act and in the larger context, it goes against President Obama’s statements in his Cairo speech when he said,

“freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion…That it is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.”

This clause forces adherents of a faith who believe in specific religious attire to choose between their religion and a teaching career in public schools.

Reading about the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act, I was troubled. I have already heard the plight of some Muslim teachers who love their career and are good at what they do, but face challenges based on their faith. Why should anyone have a career option taken from them, especially when the religious attire does not directly interfere with their work? What if there are Muslim women who have a real gift for teaching and choose to cover, should they be forced to make a choice like that?

The issue, I think, is that some adherents of a faith view their religious attire as a part of their identity, not an expendable piece of clothing or an accessory, while some outside of the faith do not recognize that component. I understand that there is a concern that schools remain neutral, but that can be acheived through other means, like establishing a particular code of conduct.

What do you think about the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act? Do you think that public schools should be singled out? What does freedom to practice a religion mean? Please share your comments.

5 thoughts on “Oregon Act: No Religious Attire in Schools?

  1. Whenever religon is brought into an educational setting it intorduces a very difficult problem. The problem is best expressed in the question; Does the authority of the teacher to offer to the students “truth” extend to his or her non spoken personal behavior in the classroom?

    When a christian woman can openly wear her “religious attire” a cross, and teach in a school in Saudi Arabia with out creating a disturbance, then I will believe that a Moslum woman can teach in an American school while wearing her “religious attire”.

  2. Greg, do you think we should strive to be like Saudi Arabia? I value living in the States in part because we usually aim considerably higher when it comes to religious freedom.

    I hope that rather than worrying that our children’s seeing someone dressed differently or engaged in a different practice will unduly influence them, we might instead take it as an opportunity to engage in real dialog about the ways we are different, but also about the ways we are the same. When faced with something unfamiliar, it is the ideal time for adults to teach the important lessons of tolerance and even– may i dream?– the celebration of diversity. And, of course, to really bring home how the notion (and more importantly, the practice) of religious freedom is wholly American. This can work not only to strengthen the child’s sense of tolerance, but her sense of self, too as she learns where she and her family fit in the greater global picture.

  3. I believe we should allow religious freedom as to what instructors wear in the classroom. America is the great mixing pot and that is what stimulates our friendships and thought processes. Let us celebrate our American values!

  4. I have to admit this is like a 50/50 for me. The look is eccentric, it’s not exactly enough to kick it out for sure. I guess it kind of looks like something that would be acceptable at a college, or university, but not really a elementary, middle, or high school. I don’t know why it would make a difference, it’s just more less appearance matter. I mean, because still it’s an action of your belief and religious freedom is the ability to act as well. I’m wondering also if it’s a preference, or an actual need for their religion. So I restate I’m 50/50.