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Prohibition on Wearing of Religious Garb Upheld

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court, over three dissenting votes, declined last week to hear an Oregon teacher's challenge to a state law forbidding public-school teachers from wearing religious clothing while they are working.

The case, Cooper v. Eugene School District No. 4J (Case No. 86-701), stems from the December 1983 suspension and subsequent firing of Janet Cooper, who took the name Karta Kaur Khalsa after she joined the Sikh religion that year. Ms. Cooper was dismissed after she refused to discontinue wearing Sikh religious garb--a turban and white robes--to her 6th- and 8th-grade classes.

In a July 1986 ruling, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the law "might indeed'' infringe on the First Amendment right of teachers to free exercise of religion. It added, however, that the burden placed on such teachers was necessitated by the greater First Amendment responsibility of public schools to not give the appearance of endorsing specific religions.

In last week's action, six members of the Supreme Court voted to dismiss the appeal for lack of "a substantial federal question.'' Associate Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Sandra Day O'Connor noted that they would have heard the case. It takes a minimum of four votes to set a case for argument.

Employee Searches

Also last week, the Court ruled 5 to 4 that school boards and other public employers have wide latitude to search employees' offices, even if they lack probable cause to believe the search will uncover evidence of wrongdoing.

The case, O'Connor v. Ortega (No. 85-530), involved the search of a California psychiatrist's office by officials at Napa State Hospital, who were seeking evidence of sexual harassment against two female employees.

The psychiatrist was eventually dismissed by the hospital, in part on the basis of items obtained during the search.

A federal appellate court ruled that the search violated the doctor's rights under the Fourth Amendment. But Justice O'Connor ruled that the basis for the search was "reasonable,'' in a plurality opinion that was joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, and John Paul Stevens.

Justice Antonin Scalia voted to uphold the search in a separate opinion that criticized the plurality ruling as being "so devoid of content that it produces rather than eliminates uncertainty in this field.''

Although Justice O'Connor upheld the search of the office, she noted that officials might require greater justification than reasonableness before searching an employee's personal belongings, such as a briefcase or a handbag "that happens to be within an employer's business address.''

In a footnote, Justice O'Connor noted that the Court's action in the case did not "address the proper Fourth Amendment analysis for drug and alcohol testing of employees.''

Other Cases

In other action, the Court:

  • Declined to review a case challenging the legality of an election that resulted in the consolidation of two northeast Texas school districts.

The group that filed the suit, Burns v. Delmar-West Lamar Consolidated Independent School District (No. 86-1337), argued that officials of the two districts had not sought clearance from the U.S. Justice Department for the election, as required under the Voting Rights Act.

Federal district and appeals courts dismissed the group's claim on the grounds that no charges were ever made that the election would have infringed on minority voting rights.

  • Without comment, postponed arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of an Illinois law that requires girls under 18 seeking abortions to wait 24 hours after notifying their parents of their intentions.

Legal experts said the Court's unusual move may indicate that it will send the case, Hartigan v. Zbaraz (No. 86-673), back to the lower federal courts for additional proceedings.

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