Protection for teachers’ religious rights advanced

After two days of debate, senators gave first-round approval Feb. 22 to a bill that would protect the right of a public school teacher to wear religious dress or garb in the classroom.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist19' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Jim Scheer'>Sen. Jim Scheer</a>
Sen. Jim Scheer

LB62, introduced by Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer, would repeal a law prohibiting public school teachers from wearing religious garments at school. School boards currently are required to suspend for one year any teacher in violation of the laws and termination of employment is required after a second violation.

Scheer said he introduced the bill after learning of Sister Madeleine Miller, a Norfolk nun who was told she would be unable to wear her habit as a substitute teacher in the public school system. Scheer said the law should be repealed because it discriminates against followers of all religions.

“As a state we understand that it’s the teacher that teaches, not the clothing they wear,” he said. “We believe that [teachers] are professionals and that they are fully capable of wearing garb that expresses their First Amendment rights while remaining religiously neutral in the classroom.”

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha opposed the bill and filed several motions to extend debate. Because children are required to attend school, he said, the classroom should be a neutral place in which children are protected from unwanted religious influence.

“There should be no person standing in front of a classroom wearing the garb, the paraphernalia, the dress of any sect, religion or denomination,” he said. “There should be no favoring of any religion.”

Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont supported the bill. Allowing teachers to wear religious dress in the classroom would expose students to diversity and teach them to be tolerant of others who are different from them, she said.

“I think [the bill] allows students to learn about the differences of other people,” Walz said. “I think it promotes an acceptance and appreciation of others.”

Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, who also supported the bill, agreed. He said teachers should be able to express their religious beliefs as long as they do not infringe on others’ rights or let those beliefs interfere with secular instruction in public schools.

“[This bill] allows people to express themselves how they see fit without imposing their religion or religious beliefs on our children.”

Lawmakers voted 36-1 to advance the bill to select file.

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