Dress codes and uniform policies have been enforced in very different ways by various schools. Schools’ rationale for banning symbolic clothing may include protecting students’ health and safety, minimizing social class indicators between students, and creating cohesion and uniformity. However, schools have been faced with an increasing number of controversial cases when they have banned certain clothing representative of students’ political, social, or religious identities. The inconsistent and ad hoc approach to addressing this issue is noticeable.
Justification for the ban was that there should be a strict separation between church and state (laïcité). Defenders point to a policy of neutrality inside the boundaries of the school. Unlike the United States, where the separation of church and state is based on a notion of neutrality of equal inclusion—meaning that schools accommodate all conceptions of the good (at least in theory)—France bases its notion of neutrality on equal exclusion. Thus, students and teachers are to shed their private conceptions as public equals once they enter the school.
A number of cases in the United States have challenged the right to freedom of expression regarding attire worn to school. In Detroit, Bretton Barber chose to wear a t-shirt to school with a picture of President George W. Bush on the front along with the caption, “International Terrorist.” The school insisted that Bretton remove the shirt, turn it inside out, or return home, for fear the shirt would cause “disruption” among students at school. Elsewhere in Michigan, Timothy Gies, a high school student in Bay City, was repeatedly suspended for wearing t-shirts with a peace sign, anarchy symbols, an upside-down American flag, and an antiwar quote from Albert Einstein. When the student attempted to defend his right under freedom of expression, the administrator said that this right did not apply to students. The court reversed that decision.
In Canada, a different court decision occurred regarding a child being allowed to bring the Sikh ceremonial dagger (kirpan) to school. The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, where in March 2006, the Court ruled in favor of the Sikh family, overturning the ban in a unanimous consent of 8–0 allowing the kirpan in schools (Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys). The main consideration before the Court was the extent of the infringement of freedom of religion and whether this infringement should outweigh concerns about potential safety. The judges felt that a symbolic ceremonial dagger was not a trivial or superficial religious symbol but an essential part of the student’s identity and faith. The second major consideration was the potential safety risk that the dagger posed to students and staff; the judges ruled that the dagger was no more dangerous than common school equipment such as sports equipment or scissors.
Divergent education policies regarding banning symbolic clothing are evident and increasing in prevalence. These tensions parallel greater societal dilemmas in balancing multicultural policies with greater societal cohesion.
- Gereluk, D. (2005). Should Muslim headscarves be banned in French schools? Theory and Research in Education, 3(3), 259–271.
- Gereluk, D. (2007). What not to wear: Dress codes and uniform policies in the common school. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 41(4), 643–657.
- Judge, H. (2004, November). The Muslim headscarf and French schools. American Journal of Education, 1–24. Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6,  1 S.C.R. 256.
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