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Fufilling the Promise

When the Civil Rights Division sent a letter to the Oregon Attorney General late last year – arguing that a portion of Oregon’s Workplace Religious Freedom act may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – it was affirming a principle enshrined in our founding documents: That no American should have to choose between his or her professional career and personal faith. Until the Civil Rights Division intervened and initiated an investigation led by its Employment Litigation Section, however, that was exactly the case in the Beaver State, where Muslim and Sikh women could not teach in public schools while wearing their religious head garb. The story began long ago. In 1923 – at the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s once-powerful influence in Oregon – the state’s legislature passed laws that closed parochial schools and prohibited public school teachers from wearing religious garb inside the classroom. The law was initially designed to keep Catholic priests and nuns from teaching in Oregon’s public schools, but as more Muslim and Sikh women and men moved to Oregon, it affected them, too. In July 2009, Oregon re-affirmed the ban under the guise of religious freedom. The state passed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which provided greater religious liberty protection for some, but also reasserted the 1923 ban, providing that “No teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.” But Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a federal law passed in 1964, said otherwise. That law, as the Department of Justice argued in its letter to the Oregon Attorney General, guarantees that no educator may be denied the right to wear items mandated by their religious beliefs, observance or practice. That’s why when Governor Kulongoski signed HB 3686 this past April 1 in Salem – surrounded by citizens of all religious faiths – he was not only repealing his state’s 87-year-old ban on teachers wearing religious garb, he was fulfilling the promise of the First Amendment and honoring the simple but powerful idea carved into the façade of our nation’s highest court: “equal justice under law.”
Updated April 7, 2017