In any nation, the promise of equal opportunity is measured by the extent to which minorities can pursue careers in public service. As evidenced by the post-9/11 Sikh experience, this promise is not always kept.
Last week, three Sikh advocacy organizations circulated a joint petition urging the Oregon legislature to repeal ORS 342.650, an Oregon law that forbids public school teachers from wearing religious dress in the classroom.
ORS 342.650 originated in the 1920s as an anti-Catholic measure and was supported by the Ku Klux Klan at a time of overt hostility toward racial and religious minorities. As we enter a new decade in the 21st century, Oregon has the sad and unfortunate distinction of being one of only three states in the entire country that shut observant Sikh teachers out of the public schools.
Just over two months ago, the Editorial Board of The Oregonian newspaper condemned the law as the product of “an ugly, lingering prejudice” and urged the Oregon legislature to repeal it. Around the same time, two key state agencies—the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries—issued a joint memorandum to the Oregon legislature in support of repeal. The Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Dave Hunt, is currently spearheading a historic effort to repeal ORS 342.650 in the forthcoming Feb. 2010 legislative session.
The only noticeable source of opposition to the repeal effort has come from the Oregon ACLU. Although the ACLU and its national affiliates tend to vigorously defend the civil liberties of Sikhs and other religious minorities, the Oregon ACLU believes—like the government of France—that all religious content should be banished from the public schools, even at the expense of basic civil and human rights. The Oregon ACLU happens to be on the wrong side of the issue, and we are hopeful that ACLU supporters around the nation will agree to disagree with their colleagues in Oregon. (Click here to read our letter of concern to the Oregon ACLU.)
So why does Oregon matter to Sikhs?
In any nation, the promise of equal opportunity is measured by the extent to which minorities can pursue careers in public service. As evidenced by the post-9/11 Sikh experience, this promise is not always kept. Sikhs throughout history have consistently struggled to maintain their identity in the face of adversity, and the same is true of Sikhs in the United States. Sikhs had to struggle for the right to serve as police officers. Sikhs had to struggle for the right to serve as federal security officers. Sikhs had to struggle for the right to serve in the U.S. Army. By and by, Sikhs in the United States are overcoming barriers to equal opportunity, and Oregon too must yield to the march of progress.