OMAHA, Neb. - People in Nebraska are surprised to hear their state has come up in a hot Canadian political debate. Tell folks here that the Parti Quebecois cites Nebraska's law on religious clothing as a precedent, and prepare for a series of puzzled stares.
That's because the law is nearly a century old and Nebraskans have forgotten it exists.
The PQ actually pointed to the law as a precedent for its values charter, a centrepiece of its current plan for re-election on April 7.
When he first introduced the charter last year, the minister responsible pointed to two U.S. states as evidence that Quebec would not be the only North American jurisdiction to ban religious clothing for state employees.
But during a recent trip to one of those states The Canadian Press couldn't find anyone aware of the law — with news of it surprising a longtime politician, a legal analyst at the state legislature, a legislative historian, a political activist, multiple school-board officials, representatives of a teachers' union, two helpful research assistants at the Omaha public library, and the people at an Islamic centre.
"I never knew anything about any such kind of ridiculous law like that," said Chaka Muhammad Benson, a 26-year army drill sergeant and a convert to Islam.
"I think it's kind of stupid, if you ask me... If it doesn't have any hindrance on that person in the performance of their duties, then why go through all that rigamarole? It doesn't make any sense."
Clearly, the Nebraska state legislators of 1919 felt differently.
On Valentine's Day of that year, lawmakers voted for a bill that would punish teachers wearing religious garb in public schools.
Their target was Catholic nuns.
The sisters risked a one-year suspension, along with a $100 fine or 30 days in the county jail. The legislative committee that studied the bill heard how one family felt forced to move to a new town to avoid having their children taught by Catholics.
The Omaha World-Herald ran the story on the second page and didn't quote any opponents of the legislation — just one politician who feared it was too weak.
"I think that this bill does not go far enough," he said. "I think we should require some of our teachers to add a little bit to the top of their dress and a ruffle or two at the bottom."
Fast-forward 94 years.
Last summer, as he introduced plans for a values charter that would apply not only in classrooms, but also hospitals, courthouses, law-enforcement, the auto-insurance board and all government offices, the lead PQ minister scoffed at the notion of Quebec as some kind of outlier.
In one interview, Bernard Drainville noted that France, Switzerland and Belgium had all developed policies of the sort. And even on this continent, he said, there are two American states — Nebraska and Pennsylvania — that don't allow religious symbols in public schools.
"It's not as if the democratic debate that we want in Quebec is not happening elsewhere," Drainville told the Globe and Mail.
There were actually three U.S. states with such laws when Illinois lawyer Mona Elgindy produced a research paper on the issue a few years ago.
Since then, Oregon has repealed a 1923 law that was inspired by the Ku Klux Klan. In Pennsylvania, after the law was applied in an early-1980s case, a pair of subsequent attempts to use it failed for different legal reasons, according to Elgindy's paper. The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, meanwhile, says it's not aware of any recent case where the state applied the 1949 law.
And then there's Nebraska. The ban still exists, technically, under statute numbers 79-898 and 79-899.
But a veteran legislator there says he'd never heard of it until contacted a few weeks ago by The Canadian Press.
"It is what is called a dead-letter law," Ernie Chambers said, after doing some research.
"Meaning, it's there but it's never enforced."
If anyone had known about the law, it would have been Chambers.
An elected politician in Nebraska since 1971, he's a staunch advocate of a secular state. In fact, he even filed a lawsuit against God once, demanding an injunction against suffering. He was trying to make a point about frivolous lawsuits, and lost the case.
Chambers didn't want to comment on the Quebec debate but said he has mixed feelings upon learning of the old Nebraska law. He likes religious clothing kept out of the classroom but, he said, he doesn't like the threat of criminal penalties.
In any case, he said, he won't bother trying to amend it because it's just one of many out-of-date, unapplied laws and it doesn't rank very high on the to-do list.
One legal counsel at the Nebraska legislature said there'd probably be trouble if someone did try applying the law. In an email, she called it constitutionally suspect and said any school district that tried using it would likely be sued and lose.
At the Islamic Center of Omaha, one man said it's wrong to cite his state as a precedent for what's going on in Canada.
"They're being deceptive,'' said Samyr El-Refaie, a university student who handles public affairs at the centre. "They're using an example of a law that's not being enacted.
"It's like a kangaroo law. Some states have these crazy, outlandish laws that were passed in the 1800s — like … having a kangaroo is a federal crime, or staying up past midnight could get you in trouble. It's just a law that doesn't apply."
He said he knows a teacher who wears a hijab. She was contacted for this story, but declined to be interviewed.
If this dusty old law is now forgotten, it appears, some people would like to keep it that way.
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