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Religious and Cultural Dress at School: A Comparative Perspective

35 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2011  

Elda de Waal

North-West University

Raj Mestry

University of Johannesburg

Charles J. Russo

University of Dayton

Date Written: October 31, 2011


This article investigates and compares the different approaches towards the dress code of learners in South Africa and the United States of America (US), as the US mainly base litigation concerning school dress code on their freedom of speech/expression clause, while similar South African court cases focus more on religious and cultural freedom.

In South Africa, school principals and School Governing Bodies are in dire need of clear guidelines on how to respect and honor the constitutionally entrenched right to all of the different religions and cultures. The crisis of values in education arises from the disparity between the value system espoused by the school and the community, and that expressed in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, which guarantees learners' fundamental rights, including those of freedom of religion, culture, expression and human dignity. On the one hand, the South African Schools Act requires of School Governing Bodies to develop and implement a Code of Conduct for learners, and on the other, that they strictly adhere to the Constitution of the country when drawing up their dress codes. The right of a religious group to practice its religion or of a cultural group to respect and sustain its culture must be consistent with the provisions of the Bill of Rights (which is entrenched in the Constitution) and this implies that other rights may not infringe on the right to freedom of religion and culture.

In the US, although there is no legislation that protects learners' freedom of religion and culture at schools, their First Amendment guides the way. Their Supreme Court respects the religious values of all citizens provided that they are manifested off public school premises. While we acknowledge the existence of religious and cultural diversity at South African schools, this paper focuses on the tension among and on the existence of different approaches towards the human rights of learners from different religious and cultural backgrounds in respect of dress codes.

Keywords: religious dress, cultural dress, school discipline, learners' rights, comparison with the United States of America

Suggested Citation

de Waal, Elda and Mestry, Raj and Russo, Charles J., Religious and Cultural Dress at School: A Comparative Perspective (October 31, 2011). Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal, Vol. 14, No. 6, 2011. Available at SSRN:

Elda De Waal (Contact Author)

North-West University ( email )

Private Bag X6001
Potchefstroom, Northwest 2520
South Africa

Raj Mestry

University of Johannesburg ( email )

PO Box 524
Auckland Park
Johannesburg, Gauteng 2006
South Africa

Charles J. Russo

University of Dayton ( email )

300 College Park
Dayton, OH 45469
United States

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