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.