About a century ago, the Ku Klux Klan spearheaded a coalition of anti-Catholic organizations in Nebraska to lobby the state legislature to pass a law that would ban public school teachers from wearing religious insignia or garb in the classroom. And in 1919 the legislators obliged. But let’s not beat up on Nebraska — around this time, 34 states passed a similar law. It’s not something state legislators these days would brag about, and to their credit, 32 of the original 34 states have repealed the offending legislation. Sadly, even now this bit of legalized discrimination has escaped the notice of lawmakers in Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
In the case of Nebraska, the long-forgotten issue came up recently when Sister Madeleine Miller, a member of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters located in Norfolk, Nebraska, applied for a job as a substitute teacher in neighboring public schools (there is a waiting list to be a substitute teacher at the local Catholic schools).
Sister Madeleine’s religious order requires its nuns to wear their religious habit pretty much under all circumstances but especially in public where they can be living witnesses to their vocation. And that’s what tripped up the sister’s job application, in spite of her credentials (she has a license to teach issued by the state of Nebraska and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago). Under the law, if Sister Madeleine were to wear her habit in the classroom, she would be guilty of a misdemeanor, which would get her suspended from teaching for one year. A second offense in Nebraska, and she would be suspended from her profession for life.
Reporter Zack Pluhacek, writing in the Lincoln Journal Star, quotes attorney Jeff Downing, an advocate for religious liberty, saying, “It’s time for these statutes to go the way of the dinosaur.” The Nebraska Legislature Education Committee agrees. And Speaker Jim Scheer has proposed legislation that will repeal the law. Scheer’s move is backed up by such unlikely political partners as the Thomas More Society — a Catholic national public issues law firm that takes on cases relating to right-to-life, family, and religious liberty issues — and the ACLU. Word around the state capitol is that the new legislation will have no trouble passing. Nonetheless, hard as it may be to believe, there are opponents of the repeal.
Two women have submitted letters to the legislature expressing their fears that the repeal would, as Pluhacek summarized it, “allow religious influence to subtly creep into school.” The opponents want to ban teachers from wearing religious medallions, religious headgear such as a yarmulke, and, of course, a nun’s habit. One of the women, Susan Gumm of Lincoln, expressed in her letter concern that the repeal would “allow the Islamic hijab, or headscarf; the niqab, which covers the face and neck; and the burka, a full-face and body covering to be worn by teachers in our public schools.” The Catholic Herald in the UK reports that just such a ban on Muslim religious garb was passed by the lower house of parliament in the Netherlands in November 2016. A “burqa ban” law went into effect in France in 2010.
Sister Madeleine has tried to assuage such fears by saying that when she walks into a classroom, she is there to help students learn, “not to make converts.” Furthermore, she believes 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.”
In the meantime, as Rep. Scheer’s bill works its way through Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, Sister Madeleine has transferred from her home convent in Norfolk to another convent of her order in Winnebago, Nebraska, which is within easy striking distance of her new job — teaching at a Catholic school in Sioux City, Iowa.