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Oregon Governor Repeals Religious Garb Prohibition

Oregon Governor Repeals Religious Garb Prohibition

On April 1, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski made history by signing a landmark bill that allows public school teachers within the state to wear religious clothing required by their religious faith in their classrooms. This was no April Fools’ joke.

A Legislative Mandate

Oregon House Bill 3686 passed both legislative branches by very large margins. It comes on the heels of Oregon’s Workplace Religious Freedom Act signed into law last year. In that effort the Oregon Legislature made significant strides in redefining the state’s “undue hardship” business standard under Title VII law, particularly for those seeking a fairer standard for holy day and religious apparel accommodation requests in the corporate workplace. And now the matter of religious “identity” expression in public schools is at last resolved, particularly the wearing of religious apparel that does not reflect an effort to proselytize students or co-workers. The governor, labor commissioner and education superintendent are working on standardized guidelines to help school districts throughout the state correctly implement the new law.

Video of Signing Ceremony

The following is the full-length video of the signing. Specifically note Oregon Speaker Dave Hunt’s illustrative use of Oregon legislative history back in 1923:

An Ugly History

The bill addresses a long-standing matter of discrimination as a result of reactionary forces to immigration in the early part of the 20th Century. Most prominent among the groups at that time was the infamous Ku Klux Klan. The original discriminatory law was intended to prevent Roman Catholics from teaching in Oregon’s public schools—hence the requirement that no teacher could wear religious dress in the classroom.

The Opposition
Surprisingly, not all civil rights groups were in favor of the new bill. The American Civil Liberties Union made their opposition to the legislation very clear to the Governor as they insisted students should have a religion-free environment in public school.

Overwhelming Support

Photo Credit: Ravitej Khalsa

However, given the multicultural society that Oregon has become, most felt very deeply that such a law was outdated and its discrimination unjustifiable.

Greg Hamilton, president of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association; Rhonda Bolton, administrative assistant for NRLA; and Pastor Doug Clayville, NRLA vice president for Oregon, were on hand for the signing ceremony.

The Oppression is Lifted!

Indeed, 2010 has become a historic year for religious freedom. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians have been systematically dismissed and fired for teaching in their religion’s required dress since 1923 in Oregon’s public schools. The oppression has now been lifted!

Legislative Outcome

The vote of 51-8 for HB 3686 on February 10 by Oregon’s House members, and the vote of 21-9 in the Senate on February 23, was by much larger margins than anyone anticipated. It was a HUGE accomplishment! The Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) was thrilled to play a yeoman’s role to bring these successful vote tallies about.

On the House side, Democrats ran scared at the last minute from the ACLU lest they be perceived as not championing religious diversity in Oregon’s public schools. On the Senate side, there were enough amendments added to the House version of the bill that put satisfactory governmental “neutrality” language provisions in the bill to satisfy a number of key Democrats and Republicans. The new language prevented any pretext for public school teachers to use their new found privilege to proselytize, or as a means for public schools (i.e., the state) to endorse any form of religious dress that went beyond having a strictly secular purpose (i.e., nondiscriminatory forms of religious diversity), and specifically in ways that had the effect of sanctioning religious dress as a means for proselytization (i.e., specific messages printed on clothing).

The speeches by Speaker Dave Hunt, the chief sponsor of the bill, and Representative Dembrow on the House side were impassioned, enormously substantive, eloquent, and effective. So were Senators Jason Atkinson’s and Richard Devlin’s on the Senate side.

More Historical Background

The finalizing vote in the Senate to repeal Oregon’s statutes prohibiting Oregon’s public school teachers from wearing religious-related dress (ORS 342.650 and 342.655) began as an all-out assault by the Ku Klux Klan to shut down all private and religious schools, particularly Catholic schools.

After having been overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the Klan further persisted by inspiring Oregon’s legislators to ban religious dress or garb worn by public school teachers in public schools. The purpose for both efforts was to prevent the so-called infiltration of Communist influences in America’s schools, which were perceived to most likely come through private and religious schools, and particularly through Catholic Nuns teaching in Oregon’s public schools in their “habits.” Yes, you read that right!
Relation to Oregon’s Workplace Religious Freedom Act

It should be noted that NRLA’s repeal efforts were an effort, along with Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt, to remedy Oregon’s Workplace Religious Freedom Act (now ORS 659A.030 and 659A.033) in which section 4 reiterated Oregon’s existing prohibition against the wearing of religious apparel by public school teachers in Oregon’s public schools.

Oregon’s Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA) strengthened the Title VII accommodation requests of religious employees in the corporate workplace, specifically in regard to holy day and religious apparel accommodations, but did not satisfy the same need in Oregon’s public school workplaces. The new Oregon statute that will emerge once the Governor signs HB 3686 will harmonize the corporate legal standard with the public school workplace by repealing ORS 342.650 and 342.655.

OregonCapitolLobbying Efforts

Pastor Douglas Clayville, Oregon State Vice President for NRLA, testified at both the House and Senate public hearings and did a superb job for NRLA. Attorney Michael Peabody and NRLA President Gregory Hamilton provided salient and timely “talking points” that provided the bulk of Doug’s written and oral testimonies, including the House and Senate floor letters. Rhonda Bolton, NRLA’s administrative assistant, polished them up and also scheduled face-to-face meetings with House and Senate members for Mr. Hamilton, who used these talking points in his visits.The day prior to the vote in the House, NRLA lobbied a number of fence-sitting Republicans and Democrats, securing 6 “yes” vote commitments and failing with one, with two others who appeared to remain on the fence. But even the one “no” vote came around and voted in favor of the bill. In speaking with legislators in both chambers, we noted how even the Democrats were having a hard time stomaching the ACLU’s arguments and attitude.

NRLA’s House and Senate floor letters also seemed to be useful to some of the legislators, particular on the House side in which several House members used some of the key talking points in our letter.

In the end, it was Willamette University Law School professor Steve Green that provided the bulk of the successful arguments that persuaded legislators to vote overwhelmingly in favor of HB 3686.

Overcoming the Opposition

OvercomingOppositionNot surprising to anyone, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposed us all the way, arguing that a repeal of these statutes would enable dominant Christian majorities to seek more accommodations in public school settings, fearing that there would be no end toward advancing Christianity in Oregon’s, and thereby America’s public schools.

They also put forward the fear that Sikhs and Muslims would be even further discriminated against by Christian majorities in the public school system. Their arguments represented red-herring and fear-mongering arguments that possessed no foundation.

This is because they failed to mention that these problems have not occurred in any significant measure in the other 47 states where similar statutes prohibiting religious dress have been repealed over the past 80 years.

In addition, as the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) concluded in its written and oral testimony, “ORS 342.650 is an untenable law that violates the proper balance between religious free speech and Establishment Clause prohibitions.” Getting that balance right between the Establishment Clause on one hand, and the free exercise of religion on the other, is the only means of protecting the state of Oregon and our nation against the drift back towards Puritanism and godless atheism, either of which will subtly but systematically outlaw freedom of religion. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once put it in a speech in Ireland: “The religious zealot and the theocrat frighten us in part because we understand only too well their basic impulse. No less frightening is the totalitarian atheist who aspires to a society in which the exercise of religion has no place.”

In the meantime, Oregon no longer remains on the list of states with similar statutes. Nebraska and Pennsylvania are the two remaining states.

OregonAdvocacyOrgsThe primary Oregon advocacy organizations lobbying for the repeal were:

  • Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA)
  • Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO)
  • Oregon Family Council (OFC)
  • Portland State University Muslim Student Association
  • Urban League of Portland
  • National Lawyers Guild — Portland Chapter
  • The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland
  • Oregon Muslim Citizens Alliance
  • Islamic Society of Greater Portland
  • Muslim Community Center of Portland
  • Islamic Center of Portland — Masjed As Saber

The national advocacy organizations officially supporting the repeal effort were:

  • American Islamic Congress
  • American Islamic Forum for Democracy
  • American Jewish Committee
  • Anti-Defamation League
  • Asian American Justice Center
  • Asian Law Caucus
  • Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
  • The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
  • Interfaith Alliance
  • Japanese American Citizens League
  • North American Religious Liberty Association
  • North American South Asian Bar Association
  • Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund
  • The Sikh Coalition
  • South Asian Bar Association of Northern California
  • Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
  • Muslim Education Trust
  • Bilal Mosque Association

Mission and Purpose of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association

The Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) is a non-partisan government relations and mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the civic, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious freedom advocacy organization in the Pacific Northwest — specifically in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is sponsored by the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and is a partnering organization to both the International and North American Religious Liberty Associations (IRLA and NARLA) located in Silver Spring, Maryland.

About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.