In general, school districts and the courts have tended to rule against expressions of religion in public schools, even to the extent of barring a brief mention of faith from a high school valedictorian’s speech.
Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post carried a story on this theme, this one from the Pacific Northwest. Oregon has just passed a law called the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, now awaiting the governor’s signature. Essentially, it requires all employers to allow their workers to wear religious items — a victory for religious expression in everyday life.
The one exception to Oregon’s new law involves its public schools. On that subject, the new law reads: “No teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.”
The problem is that this law sets up a classic confrontation between two clauses in the First Amendment. The Establishment clause forbids the state from favoring or disfavoring one religion over another, but the Free Exercise clause instructs government to let religious folks do their thing.
Predictably, the Oregon school exception is already under fire from several quarters. Muslims and Sikhs are among those who object. One group, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says: “In effect, observant Sikh Americans would still be barred from working as teachers in the public schools of Oregon because of their religiously mandated dastaars (turbans), and observant Jews and Muslims would also be subjected to the ignominy of having to choose between religious freedom and a teaching career in the state of Oregon.” …
Not really, counters spokesman Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations: “Those who wear religiously mandated attire are not proselytizing; they are practicing their faith, a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Concerns about religious neutrality in schools can be adequately addressed through professional codes of conduct.” Hooper’s position on this is sound and rational. (More)