Law & Courts

Okla. District, Muslim Student Dispute Head Scarf

By Marianne D. Hurst — October 22, 2003 1 min read
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A Muslim student who was suspended twice by her Oklahoma school district for wearing a head scarf was back in school last week.

Nashala Hearn, a 6th grader who attends the 400-student Benjamin Franklin Science Academy in Muskogee, was suspended for a total of eight days this month for violating the district’s dress code. The girl’s parents said she wore the veil for religious reasons, and they have threatened to sue the district.

“It’s an issue of safety,” said Eldon Gleichman, the superintendent of the 6,300-student Muskogee district. Its long-standing dress code prohibits students from wearing any type of headgear, including caps, hats, and scarves.

Mr. Gleichman said allowing an exception to the policy for religious reasons would undermine it by showing favoritism to a specific group and compromise the religious neutrality of the public school system.

Lawsuit Threatened

The Rutherford Institute, a legal-advocacy group based in Charlottesville, Va., plans to file a lawsuit against the district if the policy isn’t altered. The group says the policy violates students’ rights to free speech, expression, and exercise of religion.

According to district officials, Nashala started the school year wearing a transparent veil, but then began to appear with her head, chin, nose, and mouth fully covered. She also requested and took time to pray during instructional time, Mr. Gleichman said, which he maintains was disruptive and interrupted her education.

The issue came to a head on Sept. 11, when the school’s principal asked her to remove the veil, district officials said. When she refused to do so, she was suspended this month, first for three days and then for five days.

The student’s parents, who met with district officials last week, have agreed to send their daughter back to school for two weeks, wearing only the light veil.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said Oklahoma law specifically protects the student’s right to wear the head scarf.

“The school district would be wise to rewrite its policy,” he said, to include an exemption from the dress code for religious reasons.

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