Ore. House votes to allow teacher religious garb

  • Thu Feb 11th, 2010 6:25am
  • News

By Tim Fought Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. — The House voted Wednesday to strike down a law dating to the days when the Ku Klux Klan was so powerful in Oregon it could elect a governor, install a man with the initials KKK at the head of a legislative chamber and get a law passed barring religious dress in public classrooms.

The state’s 1923 law is one of three in the nation, the other two in Pennsylvania and Nebraska.

A 51-8 vote sends the bill to the state Senate, which has until the end of February to vote on the measure.

An attempt to repeal the law in 2009 as part of legislation to forbid workplace discrimination on religious grounds fell just short.

In debate Wednesday, House Speaker Dave Hunt held aloft a photo of a predecessor from the 1920s, Kaspar K. Kubli, and said it was time for the state to get rid of an anachronism that, for example, bars teachers who wear head scarves or turbans as a matter of faith.

“They should be judged by their ability to teach, not by their religious faith,” Hunt said.

He said the measure gave school districts new power to enforce religious neutrality in the behavior of teachers, so the state doesn’t have to sacrifice their religious freedom to ensure that they don’t proselytize or try to convert their students.

The Klan was instrumental in the election of Walter Pierce as governor in 1922 and dominated the Legislature, according to an account in the state historical society’s Oregon History Project.

Among its measures were those requiring all students to attend public schools — struck down by the state Supreme Court — and legislation to restrict Japanese people from owning or leasing land.

Kubli, speaker when the legislation was passed, was a Klansman whose initials were a coincidence, according to the state’s almanac, the Blue Book.

In recent years, the issue tangled the usual political lines in the Capitol.

Opposition has come from the American Civil Liberties Union and from representatives such as Ron Maurer of Grants Pass, who described himself Wednesday as coming from one of the most conservative and Christian parts of Oregon. He is a Republican running for state superintendent of public instruction.

Their argument was that allowing religious dress and accessories is either proselytizing in itself or could lead to that on the part of people who are often nearly as important in the lives of students as are families.

“I bet each one of us can think of a teacher who affected our life in a special way,” Maurer said.

Others disputed whether contemporary pupils look at the world as adults do.

Rep. Michael Dembrow described his middle school years in the 1960s in a small Connecticut town, where as an Orthodox Jew he was pointed to and picked on.

Then he described visiting a middle school in his northeast Portland district, conversing with a student who had classmates wearing religious scarves, and her response to the legislative debate.

“She looked at me as if I were from another planet,” he said. “Surely I understood that she was going to be more influenced by her classmate than by her teachers.”