Outcry Over Decision on Gaithersburg Student-Athlete’s Hijab Spurs Policy Change
State association rules that student-athletes can wear head coverings without prior approval
A state high school athletic association has shifted its stance on religious attire after taking criticism when a Montgomery County Public Schools student wearing a hijab was benched during a basketball game.
Muslim advocates said they were pleased the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association was retreating from the policy that prevented Je’Nan Hayes of Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg from playing in a March 3 regional final.
“We welcome this change in policy, which will enable more Muslim high school students—as well as students of other faiths—to participate in athletic activities,” Zainab Chaudry, outreach manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Maryland, said in a prepared statement.
The rarely enforced rule requires schools to secure the state athletic association’s permission for student athletes to wear head coverings. Watkins Mill had failed to submit the request before the game, but Je’Nan, 16, had worn a hijab without any problem throughout the rest of the basketball season.
The decision to bar Je’Nan from the regional final game prompted an outcry from groups such as CAIR and Montgomery County education leaders.
“We believe that it is inappropriate to require ‘documented evidence’ of a student’s religion or religious beliefs as a requisite for participation in a public school setting,” county school board members wrote April 3 to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The school board members in mid-March agreed to correspond with the national federation and MPSSAA requesting the policy change.
The MPSSAA drew its religious attire guidelines from the national federation’s uniform standards, but created an exception late last month. In a statement, the state athletic association explained that students are free to wear religious garments, provided they’re not made of hard or abrasive materials or dangerous to other players.
The rule is similar to MCPS guidelines, which allow students to wear hijabs, yarmulkes and other religious head coverings without prior permission, subject to safety considerations. This type of approach helps “ensure a welcoming and respectful environment for students of all backgrounds, especially in an increasingly diverse state such as Maryland,” the school board members wrote.
Chaudry praised Je’Nan and her mother for helping push for the MPSSAA policy change and urged the national federation to adopt a similar approach.