Oregon carves an exception as big as equality into new “freedom of religion” act

Oregon recently passed a bill to repeal its ban on religious attire in the workplace, a policy adopted 100 years ago as part of anti-Catholic backlash. However, it let stand an exception to this act — specifically, it continues to ban wearing “religious attire” in classrooms. Its decision strikes against its stated policy goal: to ameliorate religious discrimination in the workplace.

Religious affiliation is a protected class under U.S. equal protection (14th Amendment) and Civil Rights law, but it is subject to a much more lenient standard of review than other forms of discrimination (e.g., race). In 1980, the Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s workplace ban. The Legislature supports its ban by claiming that it is designed to avoid proselytization in the classroom. This is both misguided and continues to advance discrimination.

Schools have long been a battleground for integration. Beginning with Brown v. Board of Education I, 347 U.S. 463, it has been clear that children and schools bear a special place in our understanding of social integration and equality. A ban that serves to discriminate against Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish teachers, then, has no place in building an inclusive, multicultural society. The attempt to silence or remove religious minorities from public life is not really a policy choice for equality, but rather, for conformity. It is similar to requiring LGBT school teachers to remain in the closet for fear of “converting” youth. Both rationales are based in misguided, and bigoted, concepts of who or what the “norm” should be, how it should appear, and how this impacts youth.

As a Sikh child growing up in California’s public schools, I never encountered a non-Christian teacher until middle school. If the fear was proselytization or conversion, then the school’s policies failed in this regard. Every Christmas, I had to explain why I had to sit out of art projects and holiday activities. I would like to think that a teacher who came from a non-Christian background would understand the deep sense of alienation, along with the teasing, questioning, and ridicule, that young non-Christian children face in the classroom. I would also hope that those teachers would understand how to design a more integrated and conscientious curriculum that strove for inclusion over exclusion.

Adopting a policy that invokes a de facto ban on teaching for specific religious groups does not further equality, nor does it prevent against an abuse of authority by teachers toward school children with respect to the boundary between “Church” and “State.” Instead, it serves to further invisibilize minority teachers and ensure that children are not exposed to the true diversity of State and Nation. Exposure to diverse communities at a young age changes how we see the world and what we consider normal, abnormal, or part of our fabric. While it is important to address workplace discrimination and equality, a bill that fails to incorporate the full range of civic professions parallels France’s backwards policy on banning religious attire in public space. It is unlikely that Oregon can truly advance equality so long as it clings to its policy of exclusion within schools.


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5 Responses to “Oregon carves an exception as big as equality into new “freedom of religion” act”

  1. […] a distinctive article of clothing. The Langar Hall, a blog by Sikh youth living in the diaspora, sharply criticizes the bill. The op-ed page of The Oregonian has also come out against the bill, urging the governor not to […]

  2. Rajdeep says:

    Thank you for creating awareness about Oregon's antiquated garb statute. Your readers might be interested to know that it was enacted by supporters of the Ku Klux Klan for the purpose of suppressing Catholics during the 1920s.

    According to The Oregon Bluebook, a publication of the State of Oregon:

    "The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a warm reception from many Oregon communities in the 1920s as Catholics and minorities suffered both blatant and subtle bigotry. The Klan, FOPS, and Scottish Rite Masons sponsored a bill, passed in 1922 in the general election, to compel all children to attend public schools. The overtly anti-Catholic measure threatened to close all parochial schools and military academies. The state Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1924 and the U.S. Supreme Court concurred in 1925. The Ku Klux Klan found a strange champion in the Oregon legislature. Kaspar K. Kubli, speaker of the House of Representatives, happened to possess winning initials and became a rallying point for efforts to drive through the Alien Property Act of 1923. The law prohibited Japanese from purchasing or leasing land in Oregon. The legislature also passed a law forbidding wearing of sectarian clothing, namely priestly vestments or nuns' habits, in classrooms."

    And so, as it turns out, this is not so much an issue about religious neutrality as it is about the abject failure of Oregon's government to bury the bones of the Ku Klux Klan.

  3. Rajdeep says:

    Thank you for creating awareness about Oregon’s antiquated garb statute. Your readers might be interested to know that it was enacted by supporters of the Ku Klux Klan for the purpose of suppressing Catholics during the 1920s.

    According to The Oregon Bluebook, a publication of the State of Oregon:

    “The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a warm reception from many Oregon communities in the 1920s as Catholics and minorities suffered both blatant and subtle bigotry. The Klan, FOPS, and Scottish Rite Masons sponsored a bill, passed in 1922 in the general election, to compel all children to attend public schools. The overtly anti-Catholic measure threatened to close all parochial schools and military academies. The state Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1924 and the U.S. Supreme Court concurred in 1925. The Ku Klux Klan found a strange champion in the Oregon legislature. Kaspar K. Kubli, speaker of the House of Representatives, happened to possess winning initials and became a rallying point for efforts to drive through the Alien Property Act of 1923. The law prohibited Japanese from purchasing or leasing land in Oregon. The legislature also passed a law forbidding wearing of sectarian clothing, namely priestly vestments or nuns’ habits, in classrooms.”

    And so, as it turns out, this is not so much an issue about religious neutrality as it is about the abject failure of Oregon’s government to bury the bones of the Ku Klux Klan.

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