Ban on teachers' religious dress gets hearing

Ban on teachers' religious dress gets hearing »Play Video
Those who want state lawmakers to repeal a law banning them from wearing their religious dress in public classrooms testified Wednesday in front of a House committee at the Capitol.

SALEM, Ore. - State lawmakers plan to debate in February’s month-long legislative session whether to repeal a law that prohibits public school teachers from wearing religious dress.

In the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan had political influence, a state law was passed prohibiting public school teachers from wearing religious dress in the classrooms like turbans and head scarves.

A hearing room in the Capitol was packed Wednesday with many people wearing their religious clothing. They came to testify before a House committee in hopes of getting legislators to repeal the law.

“It’s a history that Oregon needs to move away from,” said Sava Ahmed who is Muslim and one of several people who testified.

She said if she and others aren’t allowed to wear their religious dress in the classrooms it would be “just like saying, ‘Why not just change the color of your skin?’”

The controversy stems from those who fear teachers who wear religious dress would try and influence or convert their students to their religion despite teacher conduct rules that keep them from proselytizing in the classroom.

Some religions require followers to wear certain things, and the American Civil Liberties Union said that’s fine as long as it’s outside the classroom.

“When you start infusing religion further into the schools it just creates tensions and problems,” said Andrea Meyer of the ACLU. “Parents and their students want to feel safe in the schools, and no matter what their religious belief, the school is a place that is religiously neutral.”

Laleh Zahedi, a Muslim who wants to teach at a public school, said her head scarf doesn’t make her any more likely to preach to students than a Christian.

“The law is strong enough to stop teachers from (preaching to students),” she said.

But Meyer sees it differently.

“Someone can wear something and say absolutely no words and yet convey a very strong message, and different people hear different things,” she said.

Oregon is one of three states in the United States that has a statewide law prohibiting teachers from wearing religious dress in the classroom.