Maryland state law allows religious clothing to be worn 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 fighting for integration as a turbaned Sikh athlete.

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

The law requires the Maryland Public High School Athletic Association, governing bodies of public institutions of higher education, district boards of education, and college boards of trustees to allow student-athletes to change their athletic or team uniforms in accordance with their religious or cultural requirements, or the preference of modesty.

By law, modifications to sports or team uniforms may include hats, jerseys or leggings worn for religious reasons.

House Bill 515 states that “any modification of the uniform or headgear 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 interfere with the movement of the student-athlete or pose a safety threat to him or others. The bill also states that uniform modifications must not “obscure 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 Zeinab 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 authors and every legislator who voted for the right side of history on these measures.”

Forced to choose between faith or sport

“I am very happy to see that a state in the United States, Maryland, [is] no longer going to stop 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’re supposed to bring people together, not tear them apart.”

Singh held this belief firmly as a student-athlete, when he and his brothers appealed to 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's running club.

In order to play high school football wearing a turban, Singh says he petitioned the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and received a letter to carry him from game to game saying he could keep religious clothing on during the game.

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

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

Getting permission to play in religious garb was the same hurdle that student-athletes like Je’Nan Hayes face.

In 2017, the Maryland student was barred from her basketball team’s first regional final because of her hijab, for which she said no one had previously cited the rule that she needed an in-state waiver.

Nur Alexandria Abukaram had a similar experience. An Ohio high school athlete was disqualified from the 2019 district cross country meet for wearing a hijab, which she later found violated the dress code because she had not received a prior waiver to wear the headgear.
Abukaram’s experience fueled her campaign to change the law. Earlier this year, Ohio signed into law Senate Bill 181, which would no longer require student-athletes to submit religious-wearing sports waivers, following a similar law passed in Illinois in 2021.
Last year, the National Federation of State High School (NFHS) Association Athletics Rules Committee added a new rule that states students no longer need permission from state associations to wear religious headgear during competition.
'Prom Queen' Asma Elbadawi is living her dream to defy the naysayers
An NFHS press release noted that in 2021, track and field was the eighth sport to “change rules related to religious and cultural background.”

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 announcement.

During swimming and diving, participants will be able to wear costumes that cover the entire body for religious reasons without obtaining prior approval from state associations.

Singh cites other examples of progress outside of 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 headscarves.

Permission to play does not guarantee acceptance

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

“It’s great that Maryland is taking action on this legislation. It’s huge,” he tells CNN. “But I think it should be across the board in every state in the US. I think that should be true in every country. I think that should be true for every sports governing body.”

And for players who wear religious clothing, being allowed to play isn’t the only barrier to acceptance.

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

Singh's younger brother, Darsh Preet, faced a lot of online harassment after the 9/11 attacks because of his turban.
Detractors tried to tarnish this triumph with a series of online harassment targeting Darsh. Images of him playing basketball in a turban drew 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 very much fit the profile of what Americans saw as their enemies.”

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

Earlier this year, French lawmakers proposed banning the wearing of the hijab in sporting events, threatening the participation of women from ethnic minorities such as France’s Muslim community.
In March, India’s Supreme Court upheld a ban on the wearing of hijabs, or headdresses, in educational institutions in the state of Karnataka, following religious clashes and rising tensions between the country’s majority Hindu population and its minority Muslim population.

Singh says such a conflict can only be resolved if “collective humanity” sincerely acknowledges that having a legal ban on religious dress does not mean that such rules are fair or just.

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

“This is an issue of equality and inclusion, and we still have a lot of work to do.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.