Maryland law allows religious clothing in collegiate athletics



CNN

“We had to make this really difficult choice between our love for our faith or our love for the sport.”

Simran Jeet Singh — executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society program, which focuses on religion, racism and justice — recalls his own experience fighting for inclusion as a turbaned Sikh athlete.

Raised in Texas, he says he and his brothers were often denied the right to play school and college sports because of their turbans, a religious headgear worn by men of the Sikh religion.

He is one of the voices applauding the state of Maryland’s Inclusive Athletic Attire Act, also known as House Bill 515, which went into effect on July 1.

The law requires that the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, governing bodies of public higher education institutions, county education boards, and community college trustee boards permit athletes to alter athletic or team uniforms to suit their religious or cultural needs, or preferences for modesty.

Under the law, changes to sports or team uniforms can include hats, undershirts, or leggings worn for religious reasons.

House Bill 515 states that “any change to the uniform or headgear must be black, white, the predominant color of the uniform, or the same color worn by all players on the team.”

Any changes to the uniform must not interfere with the student’s movement or pose a safety hazard to himself or others. The bill also stipulates that uniform modifications “must not cover any part of the face except as necessary for the safety of the wearer.”

In a press release issued by the Maryland office of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Director Zainab Chaudry said, “Our legislators have fundamentally leveled the playing field and improved the lives of thousands of children in our state.”

She added, “Maryland is among the worst states in America when it comes to juvenile justice … This progress is long overdue, and we thank the sponsors of the bill and every legislator who voted for these measures on the right side of history.”

“I am so heartened to see that one state in the United States, Maryland, [is] Stop stopping people from playing the sport they love because of their looks,” Singh told CNN Sport.

“I think that’s what I really believe in the sport. You should bring people together, not divide them.”

Singh held onto this belief during his own time as a student athlete, when he and his brothers petitioned various sporting bodies to allow them to play in religious attire, paving the way for more inclusion.

Singh (pictured here in blue) runs with Sikhs at the City Running Club on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Singh said he petitioned the United States Football Association (USSF) to be able to play high school football while wearing his turban and was granted a letter to be carried from game to game, which stated that he could wear religious clothing during the game.

“While that was personally helpful to me, it was essentially an exception to a discriminatory rule. But now we’re at a point where we should just change the discriminatory rule,” says Singh.

“We shouldn’t put the burden on individuals, and especially children, of having to get permission to play, and that’s a really important element of this Maryland rule.”

Being allowed to play in religious attire was the real obstacle athletes like Je’Nan Hayes faced.

In 2017, the Maryland student was disqualified from her basketball team’s first regional final for her hijab, for which she said no one had previously invoked a rule that said she required a state-signed waiver.

Noor Alexandria Abukaram had a similar experience. The Ohio high school athlete was disqualified from a 2019 district cross-country meeting for wearing a hijab, which she later found violated uniform regulations, as she had not received a prior waiver to wear the headgear.

Abukaram’s experience fueled her campaign for legislative changes. Earlier this year, the state of Ohio signed Senate Law 181, which would no longer require student-athletes to submit a waiver to play sports in religious dress, after similar legislation was passed in Illinois in 2021.

Last year, the National Federation of State High School (NFHS) Associations Athletics Rules Committee added a new rule stating that students no longer need state association approval to wear religious headgear in competitions.

A press release from the NFHS said that in 2021, athletics was the eighth sport to “change rules related to religious and cultural backgrounds.”

The other high school sports where athletes no longer require prior approval to wear religious headgear are volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, Spirit, and softball, according to the NFHS publication

In swimming and diving, competitors may wear full body suits for religious reasons without obtaining prior approval from the national federations.

Singh cites other examples of progress beyond high school sports. In 2014, world football’s governing body FIFA approved the wearing of religious headscarves on the field, and in 2017 the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) adjusted its rules to allow players to wear ratified headgear.

Despite this, Singh says there is still much more progress to be made around the world.

“It’s great that Maryland is pushing this law forward. That’s huge,” he told CNN. “But I think it should be nationwide in every state in the US. I think it should apply in every country. I think that should apply to every sports association.”

And for players wearing religious robes, eligibility is not the only barrier to acceptance.

Singh recounts the backlash his younger brother Darsh Preet Singh suffered after he made history as the first turbaned Sikh American to play top-flight college basketball governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Singh's younger brother, Darsh Preet, was harassed online because of his turban after the 9/11 attacks.

Critics tried to tarnish that triumph with a series of online harassment attacks against Darsh. Images of him playing basketball in his turban prompted derogatory comments and were used to create racist internet memes.

“There were some anti-Muslim comments,” Simran Jeet Singh said of his brother’s harassment. “After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, our performances fitted the profile of what Americans saw as their enemies very well.”

The problem is not limited to the US. The Singh brothers’ stories highlight the racism and xenophobia that fan the flames of ongoing debates around the world over religious dress in sport.

Earlier this year, French lawmakers proposed a hijab ban in competitive sports, threatening the inclusion of minority women such as the French Muslim community.

Can you do sports with a headscarf? In France, some legislators do not want that

In March, an Indian Supreme Court upheld a ban on wearing hijabs, or head coverings, in educational institutions in Karnataka state following sectarian disputes and growing tensions between the country’s majority Hindu and Muslim minorities.

Singh says such conflicts can only be addressed if “collective humanity” genuinely recognizes that just because legal prohibitions on religious garments exist does not mean that such rules are just or fair.

“I think people need to get back to the table and say, ‘Hey, these rules weren’t necessarily created for the society we live in today or with global diversity in mind,'” he said.

“This is an issue of equality and inclusion, and there is so much more we can work on.”

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