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Law Barring Religious Garb Contested

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WASHINGTON--The Justice Department last week accused the Philadelphia school board and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of violating the religious rights of teachers by barring them from wearing religious garb while on the job.

In papers filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, the department charged that city school officials had illegally denied a teaching assignment to Delores Reardon, a substitute teacher who resigned from the school system in December 1985.

According to a spokesman for the school district, a school principal sent Ms. Reardon home on one occasion when she declined to remove a headpiece that she said was mandated by her Islamic faith.

The principal based his decision on a 1895 state law that prohibits public-school teachers from wearing "any dress, mark, emblem, or insignia indicating that the teacher is a member or an adherent of any religious order, sect, or denomination.''

The Justice Department argues that the principal's action and the state law both violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of religion.

The department asked the court to declare the state law unenforceable because of the conflict with Title VII, and to order the district to provide Ms. Reardon and any other teachers adversely affected by the policy with back pay and other compensation.

Sally Akin, a lawyer in the district's office of the general counsel, said that, following the one incident, Ms. Reardon was "placed back on the substitute wheel'' and, presumably, taught elsewhere without incident. She said that Ms. Reardon resigned for reasons unrelated to her beliefs.

Ms. Akin noted that the possibility for conflict between the state law and Title VII "was always lurking there.''

In a similar case decided last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that an Army officer's First Amendment right to wear a yarmulke while on duty was outweighed by the military's compelling interest in maintaining discipline and uniformity.

Last month, the Court declined to consider a similar case involving a teacher from Eugene, Ore. (See Education Week, April 8, 1987.)

The Oregon case stemmed from the December 1983 suspension and subsequent firing of Janet Cooper, an elementary-school teacher 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 classes.

An Oregon law similar to Pennsylvania's prohibits public-school teachers from wearing religious clothing while on the job.--T.M.

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