Notes From Across the Atlantic
Notes From Across the Atlantic

Notes From Across the Atlantic

Joseph Bottum FAITH Magazine July-August 2010


On 1st April, Governor Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, a Democrat, signed a bill that repealed a law that banned teachers in public schools from wearing any religious clothing. Under the old law, Jewish teachers couldn't wear yarmulkes, Sikhs couldn't wear turbans and Muslim women couldn't wear head scarves. Groups as diverse as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, the American Islamic Congress, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund and the Anti-Defamation League supported repealing the law. Nebraska and Pennsylvania remain the only two states in the nation that still have a similar law.

The Oregon state legislature passed the original law in 1923, during a wave of Nativist sentiment fuelled by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups. The purpose of the law was to keep Catholic priests and nuns from teaching in public schools. The law was one of several Nativist measures, aimed at Catholics and immigrants, that the state legislature passed at the time. Other laws required immigrants who owned businesses to display signs indicating their national origin and banned Japanese immigrants from owning property.

The Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union supported maintaining the ban on religious clothing in public schools, arguing that it protected students from improper religious influence.

Once again, the ACLU supported a law that was passed as an explicitly discriminatory measure. In recent years the ACLU also has championed the "Blaine Amendments" that were added to many state constitutions in the nineteenth century. The Blaine Amendments, which also were initiated by Nativists fearful of Catholicism and which remain in place in many states, ban any state aid to private, religious schools.

Eric Rassbach, the Becket Fund's national litigation director, hopes Nebraska and Pennsylvania eventually will follow Oregon in repealing the religious clothing ban in their public schools. "Anti-Catholic laws like these are Jim Crow's lesser-known cousins, and they make everyone, not just Catholics, less free," Rassbach says.


Machiavelli may have been right to claim that we judge more from appearance than from reality, but the difference between the two sometimes may be deeper than we think. On 5th October 2009, President Obama held a photo-op speech on the White House lawn. Standing with him were 150 physicians who supported the president's plan for health-care reform. The doctors invited to the event had been told to bring along white lab coats (just in case they should need to examine a patient or two along the way, of course). Inevitably, a few docs forgot to bring their coats and, at the event, as cameras whirred, Obama staffers could be seen handing White House-issue white coats to les medecins sans manteaux.

As Obama addressed the uniformed group, he asserted that "Nobody has more credibility with the American people on this issue than you do". There are two ways to interpret this flattering line: either it was genuine, and Obama will follow the lead of the doctors' credible voices, or it is disingenuous and patronising.

Unfortunately, neither possibility works in Obama's favour. A poll conducted in 2009 by Investor's Business Daily and TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence suggested that physicians are not nearly as uniform in their approval as Obama would like us to think. The poll found that more than two-thirds of doctors opposed Obama's health-care plan, and 45 percent would consider leaving medicine altogether or taking early retirement if the proposed plan were to become a reality. Aside from the usual politics of appearances, this also makes us wonder: if Obama held a photo-op with General Motors employees, would he give them coveralls and welding guns? Better yet, how would he dress up the "religious right" if they came for a visit?


Seeking to expand its business abroad, the Virginia-based Genetics and IVF Institute held a rather unconventional raffle in March, during a free promotional seminar in London. According to news reports, one seminar attendee won the chance to select her "ideal donor egg based on its mother's profession, ethnic background, hair colour, qualifications and upbringing". Silly us, worried about the commodification of human life.

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