‘It’s about equality’: Maryland law allows religious attire in college sports

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

Simran Jeet Singh, a Union Theological Seminary lecturer who studies religion, racism and justice, recalls his own experience fighting for inclusion as a turban-wearing Sikh college athlete.

Growing up in Texas, he says his brothers were often denied the right to play varsity sports because of their turbans, a religious head covering worn by men of the Sikh faith.

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

Law requires the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, governing bodies of public institutions of higher education, county boards of education, and community college boards of trustees to permit student-athletes to alter athletic or athletic uniforms. team to conform to their religious or cultural requirements, or preferences for modesty.

By law, modifications to athletic or team uniforms may include headgear, undershirts, or leggings worn for religious reasons.

House Bill 515 states that “any modification 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 alterations to the uniform must not interfere with the movement of the student-athlete or pose risks to their safety or that of others. The bill also states that uniform alterations must not “cover any part of the face unless 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. .

She added, “Maryland ranks among the worst states in America for juvenile justice… This progress is long overdue, and we thank the sponsors of the bill and all lawmakers who voted on the right side. 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] no longer going to ban people from playing the sports they love because of how they look,” Singh told CNN Sport.

“I think that’s what I really believe in sports. You are supposed to bring people together, not divide them.

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

To play college football while wearing his turban, Singh says he petitioned the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and received a letter to wear from game to game stating that he could maintain religious attire while playing.

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

“We shouldn’t be imposing on individuals, and especially children, having to get permission to gamble and that’s a very important part of this Maryland rule.”

Asking permission to perform in religious attire was the very hurdle faced by student athletes like Je’Nan Hayes.

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

Noor Alexandria Abukaram had a similar experience. The Ohio high school athlete was disqualified from a district cross country meet in 2019 for wearing a hijab, which she later found was in violation of uniform rules because she failed to get prior derogation to wear the headgear.

Abukaram’s experience fueled his campaign for legislative change. Earlier this year, Ohio State signed into law Senate Bill 181, under which student athletes will no longer be required to present a waiver to play sports in religious attire, following a Similar legislation passed in Illinois in 2021.

Last year, the National Federation of State High Schools (NFHS) Association Athletics Rules Committee added a new rule stating that students no longer need permission from state associations to wear religious head coverings in competition.

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

Other high school sports in which athletes no longer need prior permission to wear religious head coverings are volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, spirit and softball, according to the NFHS statement.

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

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

Permission to play does not guarantee acceptance

Despite this, Singh says there is still a lot of progress to be made in the world.

“It’s great that Maryland is stepping up to this law. It’s huge,” he told CNN. that this should be true in all countries. I think this should be true for all sports governing bodies.

And for players wearing religious attire, permission to play isn’t the only barrier to acceptance.

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

Critics have sought to tarnish that triumph with a series of online harassments targeting Darsh. Images of him playing basketball in his turban have drawn derogatory comments and been used to create racist memes on the internet.

“There were anti-Muslim comments,” Simran Jeet Singh said of his brother’s harassment. “After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, our appearances fit very much the profile of what Americans thought were their enemies.”

The problem is not isolated to the United States. The stories of the Singh brothers shine a light on 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 ban on the hijab in competitive sports, threatening the inclusion of women from minorities, such as the French Muslim community.

In March, an Indian high court upheld a ban on the wearing of hijabs or head coverings in educational institutions in the state of Karnataka, following religious clashes and growing tensions between the majority Hindu population. and the country’s Muslim minority.

Singh says such a conflict can only be resolved by getting “collective humanity” to sincerely recognize that just because legal prohibitions on religious clothing exist does not make those rules fair or equitable.

“I think people need to come 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. he declares.

“It’s about equality and inclusion and there’s so much more we need to work on.”

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