NORFOLK, Nebraska (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Nebraska nun has been told she cannot wear her habit in the classroom, based on an archaic, anti-Catholic law. But reaction this week to a proposed state legislative bill seems promising to Sr. Madeline Miller's fight for religious freedom.
The Norfolk Public School District (NPSD) informed Miller in 2015 that she wouldn't be allowed to wear her habit if she became a teacher. In response, Miller commented, "I was just shocked. It was 2015. How could that possibly be legal or constitutional?"
The law that forbids teachers from wearing religious garb dates back to 1919 and was passed during a period of rabid anti-Catholicism. The law mandates that any teachers who break the law in question must be suspended for one year and banned from teaching for life if they break the law again.
Miller went on to say, "I could have been arrested, jailed, fined or had my license taken away if I had tried to teach." Thirty-four other states have repealed comparable laws. Only Nebraska and Pennsylvania still have statutes on the books preventing teachers from wearing religious garb.
Miller also revealed that a school official told her that the district would be pleased to have her as a teacher but that her religious clothing wouldn't be acceptable. She said she considered filing suit against the school district in question with help from the Thomas More Law Center, but decided against it.
She hopes Nebraska legislators will repeal the law without legal prodding. Spike Eickholt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska, is standing up for the nun, remarking, "It has a chilling effect for people who want to go into the business of teaching."
Martin Cannon, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society of Omaha, commented, "The problem is they are applicable only to religion. 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."
Miller is with the Missionary Benedictine Sisters in Norfolk and actively sought jobs in the school district, as there were no jobs available in any Catholic schools in that area at the time. Jim Scheer, speaker for the Nebraska legislature, has proposed legislative bill LB62 to repeal the statute in question.
Scheer, who served on a school board for a long portion of his career, has said the law violates teachers' right to exercise free speech. The case has united strange bedfellows, as the ACLU of Nebraska, the Nebraska Catholic Conference, the Nebraska Family Alliance and Thomas More Society have all come to agreement on this issue.
Miller also said, "I think everyone should have a right to work in their professional capacity regardless of their faith tradition. You do what you're hired to do and you go home. And everyone should have that right. Nebraska's better than this."
This isn't the first time the issue of religious garb in schools has come up. A similar case in 2014 took place in Pennsylvania, when Ernest Perce filed a complaint over a teacher who wore a Star of David necklace, which he claimed violated the 1949 Religious Garb Act.
Perce commented, "I object to any teacher that's breaking the 1949 Religious Garb act. I would object to any teacher breaking the law, so that's all faiths or non-faiths included." The Pennsylvania act states that "no teacher in any public school shall wear any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect or denomination."
Erich Rassbach, a lawyer with the Becket Fund, a public interest firm specializing in religious liberty cases, commented:
The anti-religious garb statute in Pennsylvania is an unconstitutional vestige of 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry. It was designed to keep Catholics out of public schools, but now this bad law can be used to target other religious minorities such as Jews and Sikhs. Oregon did the right thing by repealing its anti-garb statute a few years ago; Pennsylvania should follow suit.