With liberty for (almost) all

A new law signed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski last week protects the right of almost all Oregon workers to practice their religion on the job. But the law excludes one category of workers — public school teachers.

Oregon is one of only two states — Pennsylvania is the other — with a law still on the books that forbids teachers from wearing religious dress in the classroom. In Oregon's case, the law dates back to the dark days nearly a century ago when the Ku Klux Klan and others worked to enact anti-Catholic statutes.

First, the KKK succeeded in banning Catholic parochial schools. Then, just to be on the safe side, it pushed for a law prohibiting religious dress in public schools — in order to prevent nuns from working as teachers.

The ban on parochial schools eventually was lifted, but the religious dress prohibition remains. What it means, in effect, is that an observant Muslim woman who wears a head scarf must choose between her religion and a career as a teacher. So must an orthodox Jewish man, because his religion requires him to wear a kippah on his head. Followers of the Indian Sikh religion are required to wear turbans, so they are excluded as well.

Wearing religious clothing is not the same as proselytizing to students, which is and ought to be forbidden in a public school. Just as students are and ought to be permitted to pray privately during school hours, teachers should be able to observe their religion as well.

Now, the Legislature has passed and the governor has signed the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which says employers must allow workers to wear religious garb on the job and to take personal leave to observe religious holidays. But for inexplicable reasons, lawmakers balked at overturning the noxious law originally aimed at Catholics, so the new law contains an exemption specifically allowing school districts to continue to ban religious dress in the classroom.

House Speaker Dave Hunt, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it would not have passed without the exemption.

Religious groups expressed concern, and an Oregon Sikh group and a national Muslim organization wrote to Kulongoski urging him to veto the bill. The governor signed it, saying a veto would not have affected the existing law, and it was important to protect the rest of Oregon workers.

That's a cop-out.

Kulongoski should have vetoed the bill until lawmakers came the their senses and included every worker in the state. To extend protection to all but one category of workers makes a mockery of the principle that laws should apply to everyone equally.

Repealing the old law should be on the Legislature's to-do list in the next session.

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