Nebraska Law Bars a Nun From Teaching in Her Habit

Sister Madeleine Miller applied as a public-school substitute and was told she couldn’t wear her habit if hired.

Nun at the prayer vigil for consecrated life in St. Peter's Square on Jan. 28, 2016.
Nun at the prayer vigil for consecrated life in St. Peter's Square on Jan. 28, 2016. (photo: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

LINCOLN, Neb. — Sister Madeleine Miller’s efforts to substitute teach in a Nebraska public school ran afoul of a century-old law that left her bewildered — and prompted the state Legislature to take another look at the law’s dark past.

“I was just shocked,” she told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “It was 2015. How could that possibly be legal or constitutional?”

Sister Madeleine, 37, is a member of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Norfolk, which requires its sisters to wear their habit at almost all times in public.

She had applied to Norfolk Public Schools as a public-school substitute due to a lack of openings in Catholic schools. The school district told her she couldn’t wear her habit if she was hired.

“I could have been arrested, jailed, fined or had my license taken away if I had tried to teach,” Sister Madeleine told The Associated Press.

The 1919 law was backed by the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-Catholic groups. Violations are criminal misdemeanors. Teachers who violate the law face a one-year suspension for the first offense, then lifetime disqualification from teaching on a second offense.

The law would also ban yarmulkes and burqas.

At one time, 36 states have had similar legislation. Now, only Nebraska and Pennsylvania still bar religious garb for public-school teachers. Oregon was the most recent state to repeal the law, in 2010.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer has proposed a bill to end the law, saying it violates teachers’ free-speech rights and compounds Nebraska’s teacher shortages in 18 fields.

Many groups have supported the repeal of the law, including the Nebraska Catholic Conference, the Thomas More Society, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, and the Nebraska State Education Association.

Because she could not find a job in the eastern Nebraska school district, Sister Madeleine moved to her order’s convent in Winnebago, Nebraska, in order to work at a Sioux City, Iowa, Catholic school.

She holds a Nebraska teaching certificate, a bachelor’s degree from Nebraska’s Wayne State College, and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago.

Sister Madeleine said her goal in teaching is to help students learn, “not to make converts.”

“I think everyone should have a right to work in their professional capacity regardless of their faith tradition,” she said. “You do what you’re hired to do and you go home. And everyone should have that right.”