Religious Symbols in the Classroom

July 16, 2009 at 8:35 pm 3 comments

While taking my first graduate courses in education, we studied some educational law and briefly discussed religious garments and jewelry.

A teacher is in a special position. Standing up there in front of children, teachers are role models and examples. For some kids, they’re the only role model. For that reason, teachers are generally forbidden from wearing political paraphernalia – it’s not right for a teacher to “tell” a kid who to support. Likewise, a student shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable or discriminated against because his/her political beliefs differ from the teacher’s.

What about a cross necklace, though? Does wearing a crucifix or cross inappropriately influence a student to become Christian? Does it make non-Christian students worry that they will be treated differently because of conflicting spiritual views?

My knee-jerk response would be “no, of course not.” Of course, when I decipher that reaction, I realize that my reasoning is based on majority rule. It shouldn’t be a big deal for someone to know that their teacher is Christian, I was figuring, because most people in our society are.

Let’s presume it’s okay for a Christian teacher to wear a cross necklace, or for a Jewish teacher to wear a Star of David. There are many LDS teachers in my community who wear CTR jewelry, a readily-identifiable symbol of their religion. Is that appropriate? Would it be okay for a Wiccan teacher to wear a pentagram necklace?

For me, my answer hasn’t changed. To my mind, school is a place where young people are exposed to a lot of different ideas from a lot of different people. That’s why school is so important – we’re not going to live within bubbles in the “real world,” and school is a fairly low-consequence arena in which to experience and experiment. I never felt pressured or inspired to change who I was because of who my teachers were, and I hope that is true of my students today. On a related note, I think that teachers have the same rights as anyone else – we should be able to express ourselves, so long as that isn’t disruptive to the environment or learning process, and so long as our expression doesn’t damage anyone else’s right to the same.

Which brings me to Oregon.

Eighteen members of the Oregon Legislature are sponsoring Senate Bill 786, called (interestingly) the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act. Section 4 of the bill reads as follows:

No teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher. A school district, education service district or public charter school does not commit an unlawful employment practice under ORS chapter 659A by reason of prohibiting a teacher from wearing religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.

Okay, so I can see someone doing something that would necessitate this sort of thing. Obviously, even if I’m an ordained minister, I shouldn’t go teach at a public high school in clergy robes. And thinking back to my pedagogy classes, I can just see someone showing up to teach in Jedi garb or in full druidic regalia. These would be, I’d say, pretty inappropriate dress for the classroom.

How do you define dress, though? Is jewelry “dress”?

And here’s the bigger problem: what happens if your religious requires specific dress? Here in Bees-ville, there are plenty of teachers who are religiously unable to wear sleeveless garments. That’s not going to create much buzz; obviously, everyone wears sleeved tops.

No; I’m talking about female Muslim teachers, who wear a headscarf as a mark of their religion.

hijab1hijab3 hijab4

I don’t know how many Muslim Americans wear the headscarf, but those who do are effectively being told that they are not permitted to be teachers in Oregon.

It’s a complex issue, but I think it can be boiled down to just one question: does the headscarf keep the teacher from teaching or the students from learning?

And hey… what does Oregon say about students wearing religious dress? I’m sure the ACLU would have something to say about a student being prohibited from wearing the headscarf – don’t teachers have rights, too?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

h/t J. Samia Mair


Entry filed under: BRAINCLOUDS, CLIPPINGS.

Summer Passing Classroom?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Clix  |  July 17, 2009 at 8:04 am

    There is NO WAY that’s going to fly. First of all, the issue isn’t whether or not teachers wear religious dress, it’s whether they display it. If I drop my necklace with a symbol under a turtleneck, no one can POSSIBLY complain.

    Second, it’s a very clear invasion of privacy. Third, in past cases of this sort, “no religion” has been judged a religious belief, and this shows anti-religious bias.

  • 2. madhousewife  |  July 21, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    That’s just effed-up. Stupid Oregonians.

  • 3. Mona Freeman  |  July 25, 2010 at 11:28 am

    I would like to know whether the nuns can wera their garb in a catholic school in Oregon or are there any Catholics in Oregon.The law in Oregon is full of holes. I just shot them down


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The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

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