Oregon Senate OKs religious clothing bill

SALEM — With the February special session nearing an end, Oregon legislators on Tuesday passed a bill that would strike down a rare, 87-year-old law barring teachers from wear religious clothing in classrooms.

The Senate voted 21-9 to approve the measure, sending it to Gov. Ted Kulongoski. The governor didn't say whether he would sign it.

"He will review the bill when it reaches his desk," spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor said.

The measure would overturn a law dating to the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan dominated the Legislature. Only two other states — Pennsylvania and Nebraska — have laws restricting religious clothing in classrooms.

The bill cut across the Legislature's liberal-conservative, rural-urban divides.

Some lawmakers said they struggled with how to vote on the measure because it posed a constitutional clash between the religious freedom of teachers and the right of students in public schools to be free of proselytizing.

Proponents said it was a matter of consistency in the application of religious freedom: Should the right to wear a Christian cross or a Star of David extend to those who wear head scarves for religious purposes?

"If a freedom is allowed for one, should that same freedom be allowed for all?" said Republican Sen. Jason Atkinson of Central Point.

Opponents such as Sen. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, said she wasn't convinced that schools could remain neutral with respect to religion.

"I'm still struggling to figure out how that can happen, because dress is speech," she said. "Religious dress is a religious statement, and a teacher making a religious statement, a statement from one religion, every day, one religion, to young children ... does that maintain religious neutrality?"

Also Tuesday, Kulongoski suffered another cut from the Legislature his fellow Democrats control.

The House voted to override his veto of a 2009 bill requiring the state to analyze the possibility of buying a trout hatchery in south Central Oregon. The Senate has taken a similar vote.

It was the second time one of his vetoes was overridden this session. The first was on a bill to require the public pension system to guarantee its estimates of a retiree's benefits, even if incorrect.

The session started Feb. 1 with the Democratic leaders promising to hold it to four weeks, and it appeared Tuesday they would meet that deadline.

The largest unresolved question was over how the Legislature should remake its calendar.

Democratic leaders want to ask voters in November to put annual sessions into the state constitution. It now calls for sessions every other year and allows either the governor or lawmakers to call special sessions, as they did this year.

The Senate has passed a measure with bipartisan support, but a dispute emerged Tuesday in the House.

Republicans want restrictions on the scope of off-year sessions such as the one currently under way, and some Democrats think the time limits of the Senate bill are too stringent.

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