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PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Teachers are likely to win the right to wear religious clothing such as turbans, yarmulkes, crosses and headscarves in public schools when state lawmakers convene in February, elected officials say.
Oregon’s relatively unique prohibition on teachers’ religious garb dates to a shameful anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant period in state history and is overdue to be changed, state House Speaker Dave Hunt said.
Hunt plans to introduce a bill to repeal the 1923 law, and said he is optimistic it will pass, given the broad spectrum of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who support the change.
State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and Oregon Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo recently sent every lawmaker a letter urging them to end the ban on religious dress for teachers.
The 86-year-old law has not been tested in court since school officials in Eugene won a 1986 Oregon Supreme Court case that upheld its firing of a Sikh teacher for wearing a turban as her faith requires.
Few Oregonians were aware the state had such a ban — one of only three in the nation — until lawmakers passed a law earlier this year allowing all workers except teachers to wear religious dress at work in most instances.
The 1923 law on teacher dress was passed when Kaspar K. Kubli, an open supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, presided as speaker of the Oregon House. It was included in the Alien Property Act of 1923, which prohibited Japanese Americans from owning property in Oregon, and was designed to prevent nuns and priests from wearing their habits or vestments in classrooms.
Hunt said the old law has a modern-day impact. Some Muslim and Sikh Oregonians have been told in recent years that they can’t apply for teaching jobs or can teach only if they remove their head coverings, he said.
Hunt said he will push to “allow teachers to have the same religious free exercise rights as every other Oregonian.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which has long supported the ban on teachers’ wearing of religious clothing, said the legislature should not end it without enacting additional protections for Oregon students.
“We are urging the legislature not to rush,” said David Fidanque, executive director of the state ACLU. “Just repealing the statute could cause real problems in maintaining the religious neutrality of schools in Oregon.”
By Betsy Hammond
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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