Sunday 19 July 2009

BILL BARS RELIGIOUS ATTIRE FOR TEACHERS


Bill bars religious attire for teachers

The legislation expands clothing rights for other workers
Workers in Oregon will be able to wear a turban or yarmulke on the job under a bill passed by the state Legislature that protects religious practices for almost everyone, except public school teachers.
The bill, expected to be signed into law by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, keeps in place a controversial clause for public school teachers that prohibits them from wearing religious attire while doing their jobs. Written decades ago, presumably to enforce the constitutional separation of church and state, the clause has drawn the ire of some religious groups. And groups are angry that the new bill, while expanding the clothing rights of many workers, would continue to restrict teachers’ rights.
The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund has sent a letter to Kulongoski urging him to veto the bill, known as the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act, because it treats teachers differently from all other workers. The group is asking others to call or e-mail the governor with the same message.
In his letter, Rajdeep Singh Jolly, law and policy director of the Sikh group, called the exemption a “gaping hole” that “cannot be reconciled with the spirit behind robust workplace religious freedom legislation.”
Local Sikhs are concerned about the law but aren’t actively campaigning against it, said Sat-Ganesha Singh Khalsa, minister at Sikh Gurdwara of Eugene.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation,” he said.
Jake Weigler, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the state Board of Education took no position on the bill. But he said it was his understanding that the long-standing exemption stems from the “unique position” that teachers occupy and the requirement that religion be kept out of classrooms.
“They really are working with young people who are impressionable, and they occupy a position of authority,” Weigler said of teachers. “To have them even implicitly endorsing a particular religion or particular values creates an awkward situation in terms of keeping religion out of the classroom. Concern for that, in this case, outweighs the free expression of the individual.”
The legislation, Senate Bill 786, makes it illegal religious discrimination to deny a worker the use of vacation or other available leave to observe religious holidays or to impose rules that prevent workers from wearing religious attire. Exceptions are allowed for safety requirements or in cases of undue hardship to the employer.
In addition to turbans, the law also would include Muslim head coverings known as hijabs or the Jewish skullcaps called yarmulkes.
The only employers who are exempt from the law are public school districts, education service districts and public charter schools. The legislation retains language that says “no teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.”
Oregon is one of two states to have such a ban. Pennsylvania is the other.
The issue goes back almost 30 years to a case in Eugene in which a Sikh teacher was suspended from her job in Eugene for wearing a turban, or dastaar, to school. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
House Speaker Dave Hunt told the Associated Press that an effort to remove the exemption in 2007 failed and said the current bill would not have passed if the language about teachers had been removed.
Local Sikhs continue to track the issue.
“Ever since the court case years ago we’ve been concerned about it, but there’s been no Sikh teachers that have moved to Oregon wanting to teach,” said Khalsa. “So it’s been on the back burner, hoping that something might change.”
Khalsa said the issue doesn’t generate much conversation among area Sikhs any more, although they remain interested in it. He said he doesn’t believe turbans or other Sikh clothing amount to promoting religion.
“It’s kind of unfortunate that anyone, regardless of whether its Sikhs or Jews or Christians, can’t express their religion neutrally,” Khalsa said. “It’s not a proselytizing thing; it’s not a converting thing. They’re just expressing their faith is a positive way, in a way that expresses their joy in that.”

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