The old state law was originally introduced to prevent Catholic priests and nuns from teaching in public schools but now mostly affected Muslims.
by Massimo Introvigne
On October 30, 2021, the Pennsylvania State Legislature voted 201–1 to pass Senate Bill 84, which repeals Section 1111 of the State Public School Code, prohibiting teachers in public schools from wearing religious garb or insignia in the classroom. The Senate had already passed the amendment unanimously, while in the house only Democrat Representative Maureen E. Madden voted against.
Section 1111 provided “that no teacher in any public school shall wear in said school or while engaged in the performance of his duty as such teacher any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect or denomination.” It added that, “Any teacher employed in any of the public schools of this Commonwealth, who violates the provisions of this section, shall be suspended from employment in such school for the term of one year, and in case of a second offense by the same teacher he shall be permanently disqualified from teaching in said school.”
Section 1111 was part of the Public School Code of 1949, but the provision had been introduced into Pennsylvania Law in 1895 after lobbying by the anti-Catholic American Protective Association. Its immediate aim was to make it difficult for Catholic nuns and priests to teach in the State’s public schools. Some priests were willing to dress in plain clothes, but the nuns did not and resigned from their teaching positions.
Pennsylvania is also home to the Amish of Lancaster County. They have their own schools; their teachers do not teach in public schools. However, some Mennonites and Brethren who also live in Pennsylvania wear a “plain dress” similar to the one used by the Amish. This was also ruled “religious garb” and teachers from these communities were expelled from the public schools where they used to teach.
Anti-religious-garb provisions for public schools existed in several U.S. states, and after the decline of the American Protective Association found a new supporter in the Ku Klux Klan, who wanted them used against Jewish teachers wearing a kippah in addition to the Catholic nuns. They have since been repealed everywhere. Except in Pennsylvania, where since the 1980s they have excluded from public schools female Muslim teachers wearing a hijab.
Now, finally, this vestige of a bygone and more intolerant era will go. As a friend from Philadelphia commented, after all “This is Pennsylvania, not France.”