What exactly are anti-religious garb laws and why have public schools been the primary locus for these regulations? One state helps answer this question: This book provides a legal examination of the current statutory ban on public schoolteachers’ religious garb in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s current anti-religious-garb statute was the first of its kind in the United States. It was enacted in response to the 1894 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, which permitted Catholic nuns to wear religious garb (habits of the Sisters of St. Joseph) while teaching in public schools.
By the end of World War II, twenty-two states had imposed similar restrictions either through statutes, a public ballot initiative, or administrative regulations. All of these restrictions were removed by the turn of the millennium except three states: Oregon, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.
Enacted in 1923 by leaders of the Klu Klux Klan, Oregon’s anti-religious-garb statute was repealed by the Oregon Legislative Assembly in 2010. One of the most prominent cases involving this law, resulted in the termination of Janet Cooper, a Sikh woman who had worn a white turban while teaching.
Nebraska’s anti-religious-garb law, a replica of Pennsylvania’s ban, was first enacted in 1919 and repealed on March 27, 2017. According to Attorney Darrel Huenergardt of Lincoln, Nebraska, there is no record of any prosecutions under Nebraska’s state’s statute; however, other data shows that public schoolteachers were wearing religious garb while teaching but the statute was not enforced.
Pennsylvania has a history of prosecutions and its anti-religious-garb statute is still active today. Similar to Oregon and Nebraska, in Pennsylvania there have been contemporary attempts to repeal the anti-religious-garb statute; however, Pennsylvania has not yet been successful.
The legal definition of this prohibited type of religious expression is based on Pennsylvania’s statute, which defines religious garb as “any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect or denomination.” I examine how this definition intersects with other assumptions about the nature of private acts of religious expression done in public spaces, with special attention to the size, visibility, or frequency of wear.
Specifically, I ask, does Pennsylvania’s current ban on public schoolteachers’ religious garb violate the religion clauses of the First Amendment, as applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution?