Should your child's teacher wear a turban, a hijab, a kippah or other "religious dress'? The state of Oregon doesn't think so. The Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act, now awaiting the governor's signature, requires all employers to let workers wear religious items with one exception: "No teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher."
The proposed law has set up a classic religious liberty battle between the First Amendment's Establishment clause, which tells government not to favor (or disfavor) one religion over another, and the Free Exercise clause, which tells government to leave the religious alone. The new law also reflects the increasing difficulty of accommodating a widening variety of religious faiths in a pluralistic society.
Organizations representing Sikhs and Muslims claim the new law would unconstitutionally limits their religious freedom. They are asking Gov. Ted Kulongoski to veto the bill. "In effect," argues the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, "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."
But Oregon's Department of Education argues that public schools are obligated to maintain religious neutrality: "The underlying policy reflects the unique position that teachers occupy," spokesman Jake Weigler told the Oregonian. "In this case, the concern that a public school teacher would be imparting religious values to their students outweighs that teacher's right to free expression."
Not quite, argues 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," spokesman Ibrahim Hooper says in a statement. (More)