Can a teacher wear religious garb to school, provided the teacher does not proselytize to the students?

Probably not. It is likely that many courts would allow a school to prohibit teachers’ religious garb in order to maintain religious neutrality. The courts may view such garb as creating a potential establishment-clause problem, particularly at the elementary school level.

Pennsylvania and Oregon have laws that prohibit teachers from wearing religious clothing to schools. Both laws have been upheld in court challenges brought under the First Amendment and Title VII, the major anti-discrimination employment law. The courts reasoned that the statutes furthered the states’ goal of ensuring neutrality with respect to religion in the schools.

In the Pennsylvania case, U.S. v. Board of Education, the 3rd Circuit rejected the Title VII religious-discrimination claim of a Muslim teacher who was prevented from wearing her religious clothing to school. The school acted pursuant to a state law, called the “Garb Statute,” which provided: “[N]o teacher in any public school shall wear in said school or while engaged in the performance of his duty as such teacher any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect or denomination.”

The teacher and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission contended that the school should have allowed the teacher to wear her head scarf and long, loose dress as a “reasonable accommodation” of her religious faith. The appeals court disagreed, determining that “the preservation of religious neutrality is a compelling state interest.”

In its 1986 decision Cooper v. Eugene School District, the Oregon Supreme Court rejected the free-exercise challenge of a Sikh teacher suspended for wearing religious clothing — a white turban and white clothes — to her special education classes. The Oregon high court upheld the state law, which provided: “No teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.” The court wrote that “the aim of maintaining the religious neutrality of the public schools furthers a constitutional obligation beyond an ordinary policy preference of the legislature.”

The First Amendment Center’s A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools provides that “teachers are permitted to wear non-obtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David. But teachers should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message (e.g. a ‘Jesus Saves’ T-shirt).”

Category: Freedom of Religion

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