ABSTRACT

In 1895 Pennsylvania passed the so-called “Garb Law” prohibiting public school teachers from wearing religiously distinctive clothing. Although aimed at Catholic nuns in western Pennsylvania, the law was first enforced in Lancaster County against plain-dressed Mennonite and Brethren school teachers. The 1908 prosecution of Mennonite Lillian Risser and the school board that hired her was the first case to test the law. Although the district court ruled in Risser’s favor, the Superior and Supreme Courts reversed that judgement and upheld the Garb Law, drawing on the precedents provided by John Banister Gibson, a prominent antebellum Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice whose legal legacy had produced a remarkably narrow view of religious free exercise. Risser’s legal challenge remains an important episode in the ongoing debate over the boundaries of religious liberty in Pennsylvania. It also recalls an early example of legal engagement on the part of Pennsylvania’s plain people.

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