Benedictine sister helps repeal state law that banned religious garb in public schools

When Missionary Benedictine Sister Madeleine Miller tried to substitute teach two years ago at Norfolk Public Schools, she was told they’d love to have her – but she couldn’t wear her habit.

"Really?" she replied. "Tell me more."

A 1919 state law backed by the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-Catholic groups barred teachers from "religious garb" in public schools. It had never been challenged.

But it didn’t sit right with Sister Miller, whose religious community in Norfolk encouraged her to try to change the law.

"Anyone of any faith should be able to wear something that signifies their religious faith and feel comfortable," she said. "You need to leave your religion at the door? I don’t think so."

Sister Miller contacted state Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk in late 2015 (Scheer was elected speaker of the Legislature in January), and his office began working on LB62, the bill he introduced this year to repeal the ban. Lawmakers approved the bill 39-5 March 23 and Gov. Pete Ricketts signed it into law four days later.

The Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), which represents the public policy interests of Nebraska’s three bishops, also supported Sister Miller’s efforts. NCC executive director Tom Venzor testified in support of the bill Jan. 17, and praised lawmakers for lifting the ban.

"The (NCC) is grateful for the work of Speaker Jim Scheer and the Nebraska Legislature to repeal the religious garb prohibition," Venzor said. "Initially rooted in anti-Catholic animosity, this prohibition failed to extend the robust religious liberties that all citizens – teachers included – should enjoy in our state. We hope that Nebraska continues to be a place where the religious liberty and conscience rights of all are preserved and defended."

Spencer Head, a research analyst for Scheer, said Nebraska and Pennsylvania were the only states left with a ban on religious garb for teachers in public schools that once included 36 states.

In some states, religious garb was interpreted to include jewelry and other ornaments, he said. But because it had never been challenged in court in Nebraska, it is impossible to know how public school officials might have interpreted religious garb, or how many times it quietly had been enforced, he said.

Sister Miller, who now teaches juniors and seniors theology at Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City, Iowa, said she knew of several people who respectfully accepted terms of the nearly centuries-old law, which also banned such garb as yarmulkes and burqas.

"It became not about me, but about other people," Sister Miller said of her successful efforts to overturn the law.

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