Plains Folk

Change of Habits


It is still the law in North Dakota that teachers in the public schools cannot wear any apparel or symbols indicating their personal religious faith. Considering this fact, people of good will honestly can have conflicted thoughts. The First Amendment to the US Constitution both guarantees the free exercise of religion, which would include choosing to wear religious garb, but also prohibits the establishment of religion, which would mean that tax-supported schools must not be used to promote religious faith.


The question is complicated enough at that, but it gets more so when you look at its historical background in North Dakota. There is considerable literature about this, most notably an article by Linda Grathwohl in the Great Plains Quarterly.


Early in the twentieth century, sisters of Catholic religious orders, notably the Sisters of St. Benedict and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, took up teaching posts in the public schools. This was financially convenient, as the sisters worked cheap (donating their salaries to their order), as well as culturally agreeable: the northern plains largely were settled up as ethnic enclaves with religious homogeneity, and in Catholic communities, people liked having nuns teach their kids.


In the mid-1930s some parties from Gladstone filed suit to enjoin three Benedictine nuns from teaching in the Gladstone school district. The case went to the state supreme court as Gerhardt v. Heid, wherein the court sided with the sisters. There was no evidence given that the nuns had engaged in religious indoctrination, and so the court ruled that what they wore to work was immaterial. The court specifically said such dress was “not a matter for the courts to determine.”


Such an opinion both closed a book and opened a door. A decade later a coalition of interests including Lutherans, Masons, and others initiated a measure to expel the nuns in their habits—74 of them in 1947—from the public schools. Supporters of the initiative called themselves the Committee for the Separation of Church and State. Catholic opponents organized as the Committee for the Defense of Civil Rights.


The initiated measure, known as the anti-garb law, which passed on a fairly close popular vote in June 1949, prohibited the wearing of religious garb while teaching. This is one of those matters where from a reflective distance, we can see problems with both sides. Without doubt anti-Catholic and anti-German prejudices, ugly forces of bigotry, were moving among the proponents of the anti-garb law. On the other hand, Catholic leaders were not completely transparent as to their motives. One bishop insisted publicly that the nuns were teaching only to relieve the shortage of teachers, and he would be happy to move them to other duties as soon as it was possible. Private correspondence, however, indicated that he regarded the mission of the nuns in the schools to be the propagation of the faith—just what the proponents of the anti-garb law protested.


Moreover, several North Dakota schools were clear instances of what had become known across the country as “captured” schools—public schools where the teaching staff were nuns, and the school buildings and other facilities were owned by the church, and there were no other public schools in the community. Like I said, the issue was complicated, and the closer you look, the more complicated it gets. Especially since for some years after passage of the law, nuns continued to teach in the public schools, changing out of their habits when they went to teach.


The anti-garb law still stands. Most people think nothing of it. In communities where the nuns once staffed the schools, however, historical memory is still powerful, and alumni of those schools still express resentment of the law that took away their sisters.



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