Religious Garb in Courtrooms and Classrooms

2012-08-23 21:19:44

In a nation that guarantees and values civil liberties reflecting a wide variety of religious traditions, beliefs, and practice, American courts have decided many complex cases relating to the public display of religion, including cases involving challenges to restrictions on religious garb in public courtrooms and classrooms. Courts have generally protected the rights of parties to a case to wear religious garb in the courtroom, but have largely been less protective of the rights of attorneys to appear in court while dressed in religious clothing. In the public school context, although courts have expressed a range of approaches to dress codes that prohibit religious garb, they have often provided greater protection for the rights of students than for those of teachers.

In the courtroom setting, most published decisions have held that the rights of a party to wear religious garb outweigh any potential concern of security, decorum, or juror prejudice. For example, within a twomonth period in 1978, courts in Rhode Island (In re Palmer) and New York (Close-It Enterprises, Inc. v. Weinberger) held that trial courts had improperly ordered the removal of religious head covering by parties who identified themselves, respectively, as a Sunni Muslim and a devout adherent to the Jewish faith. The courts emphasized both the free exercise rights of the parties and the absence of a sufficiently counterbalancing threat to decorum, security, or fairness. These and other courts have also endorsed the use of jury instructions to prevent any prejudice that may result from a party’s wearing religious garb in the courtroom. In Joseph v. State (1994), a Florida court broadly interpreted constitutional protections to extend to dress requirements based on religious beliefs that were clearly not mainstream. Nevertheless, in Spanks-El v. Finley (1988), Illinois federal courts held that the compelling interest in courtroom security outweighed a party’s religious objection to temporarily removing a fez from his head at a security checkpoint. In addition, in State v. Hodges (1985), the Tennessee Supreme Court suggested that a party’s desire to dress ‘‘like a chicken’’ may be so bizarre as to exceed the bounds of free exercise protections.

A more complex issue relates to the rights of attorneys to wear religious garb in the courtroom, often in the context of priests who wish to appear in clerical collars. This issue is most notably illustrated in the saga of Vincent LaRocca, a Roman Catholic priest and a lawyer in New York, whose repeated attempts to wear his clerical collar when serving as an attorney spawned years of litigation before numerous New York State and federal courts. Ultimately, in LaRocca v. Lane (1975), the New York Court of Appeals upheld the lower court order that prohibited LaRocca from wearing his collar when representing a criminal defendant. The court found that the lower court’s decision protected the rights of both the defendant and the government, preventing the potential danger of jury bias that could have resulted from LaRocca’s clerical status as a priest. In contrast, however, the court acknowledged that this reasoning might not preclude an attorney from appearing in court while donning nonclerical religious garb. Moreover, as O’Reilly v. New York Times Co. (1982), a New York federal appeals case, and Ryslik v. Krass (1995), a New Jersey state case, suggest, courts are more likely to permit priests to wear their collars when appearing in court pro se, consistent with the protection generally afforded parties who wish to wear religious garb. Both of these courts accepted the utility of jury instructions to address and prevent any jury prejudice.

Finally, courts appear to vary in their approach to restrictions on religious garb in public schools. In Cooper v. Eugene School District (1986), the Oregon Supreme Court upheld statutes pursuant to which a special education teacher in Oregon public schools, who identified herself as a Sikh, was suspended for wearing religious garb in performance of her duties as a teacher. The court engaged in a historical survey of wide-ranging attitudes of courts addressing the issue of religious symbolism in public schools. The Oregon court concluded that although courts generally found that a teacher’s religious garb alone does not demonstrate improper sectarian influence in the classroom, at the same time, rules against such dress were generally permitted to avoid the appearance of sectarian endorsement. Thus, the court held that the Oregon statute served the legitimate concern that the teacher’s regular or frequent appearance in religious garb may be perceived to signal the school’s endorsement of the teacher’s religious commitment. In a more recent case, however, Nichol v. Arin Intermediate Unit 28 (2003), a federal court granted injunctive relief in favor of an instructional assistant who wore a cross on a necklace and was therefore suspended pursuant to a Pennsylvania School Code prohibiting teachers and certain other public school employees from wearing religious garb or symbols. The court found that the school policy improperly discriminated against the free exercise and expression of religion, without counterbalancing justification, such as a demonstration of resulting disruption, controversy, or disturbance, or any evidence of perceived government endorsement of the teacher’s religion. As concerns of endorsement are less likely in the context of the religious garb of students, several courts have held that that school dress codes may not unduly burden the sincerely held religious beliefs of student. Thus, in Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District (1997) and Alabama and Coushatta Tribes of Texas v. Trustees of Big Sandy Independent School District (1993), Texas federal courts have found unconstitutional school dress regulations that did not exempt students who wore rosaries or long hair as a form of religious expression.


References and Further Reading

  • Levine, Samuel J., Religious Symbols and Religious Garb in the Courtroom: Personal Values and Public Judgments, Fordham Law Review 66 (1998): 1505.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Alabama and Coushatta Tribes of Texas v. Trustees of Big Sandy Independent School Dist., 817 F. Supp. 1319 (E.D. Tex. 1993)
  • Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School Dist., 976 F. Supp. 659 (S.D. Tex. 1997)
  • Close-It Enterprises, Inc. v. Weinberger, 407 N.Y.S.2d 587 (App. Div. 1978)
  • Cooper v. Eugene School District, No. 4J, 723 P.2d 298 (Or. 1986)
  • In re Palmer, 386 A.2d 1112 (R.I. 1978)
  • Joseph v. State, 642 So. 2d 613 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1994)
  • LaRocca v. Lane, 338 N.E.2d 606 (N.Y. 1975)
  • Nichol v. Arin Intermediate Unit 28, 268 F. Supp.2d 536 (W.D. Pa. 2003)
  • O’Reilly v. New York Times Co., 692 F.2d 863 (2d Cir. 1982)
  • Ryslik v. Krass, 652 A.2d 767 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1995)
  • Spanks-El v. Finley, No. 85-C9259, 1987 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3374 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 23, 1987), aff’d, 845 F.2d 1023 (7th Cir. 1988)
  • State v. Hodges, 695 S.W.2d 171 (Tenn. 1985) 24 Pa. Stat. Ann s. 11–1112 ORS 342.650 and 342.655