Maryland law permits religious clothing in college sports

Maryland law permits religious clothing in college sports

Simran Jeet Singh – Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program, which studies religion, racism and justice – recalls his own experience struggling for inclusion as a turbaned Sikh athlete.

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

The law requires that the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletics Association, the governing bodies of public higher education institutions, the county education councils, and the community college boards of directors to allow student athletes to change uniforms athletic or team, to conform to their religious or cultural requirements, or preferences for modesty.

Under the law, changes to athletic or team uniforms may include headdresses, shirts, or leggings worn for religious reasons.

Singh's younger brother, Darsh Preet Singh, was the first American Sikh with a turban to play senior NCAA college basketball.
House Bill 515 states that “any changes to the uniform or headdress 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 movement of the student athlete or pose a safety hazard to themselves or others. The bill also stipulates that uniform changes must not “cover any part of the face, unless it is 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 lawmakers have fundamentally leveled the playing field and improved the lives of thousands of children in our state.” .
He added: “Maryland is among America’s worst states when it comes to juvenile justice … This progress is long overdue and we thank the sponsors of the bill and every lawmaker who voted on the right side of history on these. measures”.

Forced to choose between faith or sport

“I am so heartened to see that one state in the United States, Maryland, [is] it will no longer stop people from playing the sports they love because of their looks, ā€¯Singh tells CNN Sport.

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

Singh held true to this belief during his days as a student athlete, where he and his brothers petitioned various sports governing bodies to allow them to play in religious clothing, paving the way for greater inclusion.

Singh (pictured here in blue) who runs across the Brooklyn Bridge with the Sikhs in the City running club.

To play high school soccer wearing a turban, Singh says he petitioned the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and was given a letter to take from game to game stating he could keep religious attire. while he played.

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

“We shouldn’t be putting 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.”

Seeking permission to play in religious clothing was the hurdle faced by student athletes like Je’Nan Hayes.

In 2017, the Maryland student was barred from her basketball team’s first regional final appearance because of her hijab, for which, she said, no one had previously invoked a rule saying she needed a state-signed waiver. .

Noor Alexandria Abukaram had a similar experience. The Ohio high school athlete was disqualified from a 2019 cross-country district meeting for wearing a hijab, which she later found was in violation of uniform regulations as she had not obtained a previous headgear waiver. .
Abukaram’s experience fueled his campaign for legislative change. Earlier this year, the state of Ohio signed Senate Bill 181, under which student athletes will no longer be required to file a waiver of sports in religious attire, following similar legislation passed in Illinois in 2021.
Last year, the National Federation of State High Schools (NFHS) Associations Athletics Rules Committee added a new rule stating that students no longer need state association permission to wear headgear. religious during competitions.
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A press release from the NFHS states that, in 2021, track and field was the eighth sport to “change the rules relating to religious and cultural background”.

Other high school sports where athletes no longer need prior approval to wear religious headgear are volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, spirit, and softball, according to the NFHS release.

In swimming and diving, competitors may wear full-body suits for religious reasons without prior authorization from state associations.

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

Permission to play does not guarantee acceptance

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

“It’s great that Maryland is moving on this law. It’s huge,” he tells CNN. “But I think it should be general in every state in the United States. I think it should be true in every country. I think it should be true with every sports governing body.”

And for players who wear religious clothing, permission to play isn’t the only obstacle to acceptance.

Singh recounts the backlash he received from his younger brother Darsh Preet Singh after making history as the first turbaned American Sikh to play senior college basketball, governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Singh's younger brother, Darsh Preet, suffered a lot of harassment online after the 9/11 attacks due to his turban.
Detractors have tried to tarnish this triumph through a series of online harassment against Darsh. Images of him playing turbaned basketball attracted derogatory comments and were used to create racist memes on the Internet.
“There have been some anti-Muslim comments,” Simran Jeet Singh said of his brother’s harassment. “After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, our appearances fit perfectly into the profile of who the Americans thought were their enemies.”

The problem is not an isolated one for the United States. The Singh brothers’ stories highlight the racism and xenophobia that fuel the flames of ongoing debates around the world about religious clothing in sports.

Earlier this year, French lawmakers proposed a ban on the hijab in competitive sports, threatening the inclusion of women from minority backgrounds, such as the French Muslim community.
In March, an Indian high court upheld a ban on wearing hijabs or headdresses in educational establishments in the state of Karnataka, following religious clashes and growing tensions between the country’s Hindu majority and Muslim minorities.

Singh argues that such a conflict can only be addressed by having “collective humanity” sincerely acknowledge that just because there are legal bans on religious garments, it does not mean that such rules are fair or equitable.

“I think people have to go back to the table and say, ‘Hey, these rules weren’t necessarily created for the society we live in today or taking into account global diversity,'” he said.

“This is a question of equality and inclusion and there is a lot more to work on.”

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