Maryland law allows 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 her own experience of fighting 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 in school and college because of their turbans, a religious head covering worn by men of the Sikh faith.

The law requires the Maryland Public Secondary School 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 team uniforms to accommodate their religious or cultural requirements , or modesty preferences.

Under the law, modifications to sports or team uniforms can include head coverings, tank tops or leggings worn for religious reasons.

House Bill 515 states that “any modification of the uniform or cap shall be black, white, the predominant color of the uniform, or the same color worn by all players on the team.”

Any modifications to the uniform must not impede the student-athlete’s movement or pose a safety hazard to the student-athlete or others. The bill also stipulates that uniform modifications must not “cover any part of the face unless required 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 Chaudhry 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 when it comes to juvenile justice… This progress is long overdue, and we thank the bill’s sponsors and every legislator who voted on the right side of history for these measures.’

Forced to choose between faith or sports

“I am so encouraged to see that one state in the United States, Maryland, [is] will no longer ban people from playing the sport they love because of how they look,” Singh told CNN Sport.

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

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

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

To play high school 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 maintains religious dress while playing.

“While this was useful to me personally, it was essentially an exception to a discriminatory rule. But now we are at a place where we have to just change the rule, which is discriminatory,” says Singh.

“We shouldn’t put the burden on people, and especially kids, to have to get a permit to play, and that’s a really important element of this Maryland rule.”

Seeking permission to play in religious garb has been the hurdle facing student-athletes like Je’Nan Hayes.

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

Nur Alexandria Abukaram had a similar experience. The Ohio high school athlete was disqualified from a 2019 cross-country district meet for wearing a hijab, which she later found violated uniform rules because she had not received prior permission to wear a head covering.
Abukaram’s experience fuels her campaign for legislative change. Earlier this year, Ohio State signed Senate Bill 181, which would no longer require student-athletes to submit a religious apparel waiver, following 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 that states students no longer need permission from state associations to wear religious head coverings during competition.
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An NFHS press release states that in 2021, track and field is the eighth sport to “change rules related to religious and cultural background.”

The other high school sports in which athletes no longer need prior approval to wear religious headgear are volleyball, basketball, football, field hockey, track and field and softball, according to the NFHS release.

In swimming and diving, competitors will be able to wear suits that cover the entire body for religious reasons without obtaining prior permission from state associations.

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

Permission to play does not guarantee acceptance

However, Singh says there is still much progress to be made around the world.

“It’s great that Maryland is taking steps on this law. It’s huge,” he told CNN. “But I think it should be everywhere in every state in the US. I think it should be true in every country. I think it should be true in every sports governing body.”

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

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

Singh's younger brother, Darsh Preet, experienced a lot of online harassment after the 9/11 attacks because of his turban.
Detractors tried to tarnish this triumph through a barrage of online harassment directed at Darsh. Images of him playing basketball in his turban drew derogatory comments and were used to create racist internet memes.
“There were some anti-Muslim comments,” Simran Jeet Singh said of her brother’s harassment. “Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, our appearances have largely fit the profile of who Americans consider their enemies.”

The problem is not isolated to the US. The Singh brothers’ stories highlight the racism and xenophobia that has fueled the ongoing debate around the world about religious dress in sports.

Earlier this year, French lawmakers proposed banning the wearing of the hijab in competitive sports, threatening the inclusion of women from minority backgrounds, such as France’s Muslim community.
In March, India’s Supreme Court upheld a ban on the wearing of the hijab, or head covering, in educational institutes in the state of Karnataka, following religious clashes and rising tensions between the country’s majority Hindu and minority Muslim population.

Singh says such conflict can only be resolved by “collective humanity” sincerely acknowledging that just because legal bans on religious clothing exist does not mean such rules are fair or just.

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

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

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