LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Sister Madeleine Miller applied for a high school teaching job in Nebraska thinking she would get judged on her credentials — not what she was wearing on her head.
The 37-year-old nun was shocked to learn that, under a little-known law nearly a century old, she couldn’t wear a habit in a public school classroom. The vaguely worded ban prohibits teachers from wearing any sort of religious garb, from burqas to yarmulkes.
“I could have been arrested, jailed, fined or had my license taken away if I had tried to teach,” Miller said Tuesday.
Now, state lawmakers are looking to end the ban, which was passed in 1919 under pressure from the Ku Klux Klan amid a national wave of anti-Catholic sentiment.
The law is rarely enforced but came to the attention of the senator whose district includes Norfolk Public Schools, where Miller had hoped to work. Miller said a school administrator told her the district would be happy to hire her, but she couldn’t wear her habit in class.
Thirty-six states had adopted similar bans on religious garb at various points, but Nebraska and Pennsylvania are the only ones that have yet to repeal them, said Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer, sponsor of the repeal bill. Oregon abolished its ban in 2010.
Scheer, who spent nearly two decades serving on a local school board, said he had no idea the ban was still in place but argued that it violates teachers’ free-speech rights. Nebraska is also struggling to fill teacher shortages this year in 18 different fields, according to the state Department of Education.
“This isn’t virgin turf I’m tilling here,” said Scheer, of Norfolk. “We’re just one of the last ones.”
Miller — who holds a Nebraska teaching certificate, a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State College in Nebraska and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago — ended up taking a job at a Catholic school in neighboring Iowa. She said she initially considered filing a lawsuit with help from the Thomas More Law Center, a national religious liberties group, but decided against it in hopes that lawmakers would fix the issue themselves.
Church rules require sisters to wear the habit virtually all of the time, except when working in a communist country or cleaning with harsh chemicals that could damage the blessed garments. Miller sought the job as a public school substitute because none of the local Catholic schools had any openings.
Nebraska is considering the proposal in the midst of a broader debate over religious garb. In November, lawmakers in the lower house of the Dutch parliament approved a ban on “face-covering clothing,” including Islamic veils and robes such as the burqa and niqab. In 2010, France approved a so-called burqa ban that has since been blamed for encouraging Islamophobia and giving Muslim extremists more ammunition to incite hatred.
The proposal to repeal Nebraska’s ban faced little resistance Tuesday during a legislative hearing. The measure drew support from a diverse coalition including Catholic groups and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska.
Spike Eickholt, an attorney for the ACLU of Nebraska, said current state law doesn’t even define what constitutes religious garb and allows for punishments even if students don’t notice it.
“It has a chilling effect for people who want to go into the business of teaching,” he said.
Martin Cannon, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, said Nebraska’s ban on religious garb is “blatantly unconstitutional” and goes far beyond the prohibition on government promoting religion.
“The problem is they are applicable only to religion,” he said. “A person could come to school as a teacher wearing maybe a flower power shirt or a Scooby Doo button or a ‘Vote for Charlie’ pin, but he can’t wear a cross.”
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