Democrats push to repeal religious dress ban in schools

Democrats push to repeal religious dress ban in schools »Play Video

SALEM, Ore. - A decades-old law banning teachers from wearing religious clothing in public classrooms received vigorous debate Friday during a public hearing on the 1923 law.

Democrats are leading the charge to lift the ban because they say it is unconstitutional and discriminatory. In a move to make their proposed law more palatable to critics of repealing the ban, Democratic lawmakers recently added an amendment that would allow school districts to restrict religious clothing if it affects “religious neutrality in the classroom.”

But critics said that’s no consolation.

“The influence of the daily appearance of a woman who is proclaiming her faith by what she wears to that captive audience day after day after day, and the younger the child the greater the impressionability of it,” said Charles Hinkle.

Plus, he said there would be greater tension among teachers practicing different religions.

“You’re going to have an increasing pushback from Christian teachers who want to increasingly wear their religious symbols, and I believe this is going to be damaging to the public schools,” he said.

Taghrid Elmeligui, a Muslim teacher who is teaching in a public school in the greater Portland area said she knows what goes too far.

“It does not interfere with my daily work,” she said. “I am a well-trained professional, and I know where my limits are.”

Elmeligui has been technically breaking Oregon law by wearing her head scarf in the classroom with the permission of her principal, but she said there haven’t been any problems.

She said her headscarf isn’t just about her religion it’s also about her culture.

“Asking me to remove the scarf and go outside my house would be like asking her to go outside her house in her underwear,” she said.

Critics said, however, it could lead down a path to proselytizing and would even allow people who practice witchcraft to wear their religious garb.

The 1923 law was passed when a Ku Klux Klan leader was the Speaker of the House. The current speaker, Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Clackamas County, held up a picture of the man and said what lawmakers did then was unconstitutional.

“To send a strong message that Speaker Kasper K. Kubli and the KKK members of the era were wrong,” Hunt said.

State Labor Commissioner, Brad Avakian, said under the proposed law school districts would have the power to complain to his office when they believe a teacher’s outfit is disrupting the impartiality in the classroom.

“A small cross may not. A full Gothic Wiccan garb might,” he said.

Seven panels of people were scheduled to testify at the House Education Committee’s afternoon hearing and while that was a lot of people, the committee was able to get through all those who signed up.

Late Friday afternoon, the House Committee voted six to four to move the bill forward. It now goes to a full vote of the House.