Maryland law allows religious clothing to be worn in college sports

Simran Jeet Singh — executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society program, who studies religion, racism and justice — recalls his own experience fighting for inclusion as a turban-wearing Sikh athlete.

Raised 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 men of the Sikh religion.

The law requires the Maryland Public High School Athletic Association, state higher education governing bodies, district boards of education, and local college boards of trustees to allow student-athletes to modify athletic or team uniforms to fit their religious or cultural requirements, or preference for modesty.

By law, modifications to a sports or team uniform may include headwear, tank tops, or leggings worn for religious reasons.

Singh's younger brother, Darsh Preet Singh, was the first turban-wearing Sikh American to play top-level NCAA college basketball.
House Act 515 states that “any modification to a 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 modifications to the uniform must not interfere with the student-athlete’s movement or endanger himself or others. The bill also provides that uniform modifications must not “cover any part of the face unless required for the safety of the wearer.”

AT Press release Released by the Maryland Office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Director Zainab Chaudhry stated, “Our legislators have substantially 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 sponsors of the bill and every legislator who voted on the right side of the story regarding these measures.”

Forced to choose between faith or sport

“I’m so glad to see that a state in the United States, Maryland, [is] will no longer ban people from playing their favorite sport because of the way they look,” says Singh. CNN Sports.

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

Singh held this belief firmly during his student-athlete days when he and his brothers petitioned various sports governing bodies to be allowed to play in religious attire, paving the way for greater inclusiveness.

Singh (pictured in blue) runs across the Brooklyn Bridge with Sikhs at the city's running club.

In order to play high school football in a turban, Singh says he petitioned the United States Football Federation (USSF) and was given a letter to wear from game to game saying he could wear religious attire while playing. .

“While it was beneficial for me personally, it was essentially an exception to the discriminatory rule. But now we are at the point where we should just change the discriminatory rule,” says Singh.

“We should not place the responsibility of obtaining permission to play on individuals, especially children, and that’s a really important element of this Maryland rule.”

Obtaining permission to play in religious attire was the very hurdle faced by student-athletes such as Jenan Hayes.

In 2017, a Maryland student was eliminated from her basketball team’s first regional final because of her hijab, which she said caused no one to previously enforce the rule that required her to have a state-signed waiver.

Nur Alexandria Abukaram had a similar experience. An Ohio high school athlete was disqualified from a 2019 district cross country event for wearing a hijab, which she later learned was in violation of uniform rules because she did not receive prior approval to wear a head covering.
Abukaram’s experience fueled her campaign to change the law. Earlier this year, the state of Ohio signed into law Senate Bill 181under which student-athletes would no longer be required to present a waiver of sports in religious dress following similar legislation enacted in Illinois in 2021.
Last year, the National Federation of Public High Schools (NFHS) Athletics Rules Committee added new rule stating that students are no longer required to have permission from state associations to wear religious headgear in competition.
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BUT NFHS press release states that in 2021, athletics became the eighth sport to have “changed the rules related to religious and cultural backgrounds.”

Other high school sports that no longer require prior permission for athletes to wear religious headgear are volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, spirit and softball, according to the NFHS release.

In swimming and diving, participants will be able to wear full-body suits for religious reasons without prior permission from state associations.

Singh cites other examples of progress outside the world of high school sports. In 2014, the governing body of world football FIFA approves religious headscarves on the field, and in 2017 the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) changed his rules allow players to wear approved headgear.

Permission to play does not guarantee consent

Regardless, Singh says the world still has a lot to do.

“It’s great that Maryland is moving forward with this legislation. It’s very important,” he told CNN. “But I think it should be ubiquitous in every state in the US. I think this should be true in every country. I think this should be true in every sports governing body.”

And for players dressed in religious garb, being allowed to play isn’t the only barrier to acceptance.

Singh talks about the backlash his younger brother Darsh Preet Singh received after he made history as the first turban-wearing Sikh American to play top-level college basketball run by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Singh's younger brother, Darsh Preet, was subjected to multiple online harassment after the 9/11 attacks because of his turban.
Detractors tried to tarnish this triumph online stalking aimed at Darsh. Images of him playing basketball while wearing a turban have drawn derogatory comments and have been used to create racist internet memes.
“There were anti-Muslim comments,” said Simran Jeet Singh about the persecution of his brother. “After the September 11 attacks our appearance is very consistent with the profile whom the Americans considered their enemies.”

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

Earlier this year, French lawmakers propose to ban the hijab in competitive sports, threatening the inclusion of women from minorities such as the French Muslim community.
In March Indian Supreme Court upholds ban about the wearing of hijabs or head coverings in educational institutions in the state of Karnataka following sectarian clashes and growing tensions between the country’s Hindu majority population and the Muslim minority.

Singh says that such a conflict can only be resolved if “humanity collective” earnestly acknowledges that the fact that there are legal prohibitions on wearing religious dress does not mean that such rules are fair or just.

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

“This is a matter of equity and inclusion, and we still have a lot of work to do.”