U.S. Acts to Protect Religious Discrimination

( [email protected] ) Mar 31, 2004 10:35 AM EST

Oklahoma -- The U.S. has entered into the arena of the headscarves battle on Tuesday, March 30, 2004. Within the last few months, the French government approved a law banning the headscarf and other religious symbols in school, while a state in Germany called for a ban on teachers hijabs (headscarves).

The debate reached the U.S. in a different light, however, with the Justice Department defending the legal rights to wearing religious symbols at the classrooms, by filing a complaint on behalf of a Muslim girl who was twice sent home from her school for wearing her hijab.

"Religious discrimination has no place in American schools," Assistant Attorney General Alexander Acosta said in a statement released Tuesday. "No student should be forced to choose between following her faith and enjoying the benefits of a public education."

However, the lawyer for the Muskogee School District, where the case was filed, argued that the issue was not about religious discrimination.

"There is no federal right to wear religious attire" in schools, he insisted. “We are in compliance with federal guidelines from the Department of Education."

The 11-year old girl involved in the debate, Nashala Hearn, was suspended from the Benjamin Franklin Science Academy in Muskogee, Oklahoma, because the local authorities ban all forms of headgear.

Acosta said there was a need to take action because such rules since they may amount to religious discrimination, which violates the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.

"We certainly respect local school systems' authority to set dress standards, and otherwise regulate their students, but such rules cannot come at the cost of constitutional liberties," said Acosta.

The girl’s parents sued the school district for $80,000, claiming the dress code discriminates unjustly against religious clothing. Nashala herself asked why other girls are allowed to wear crosses while she was banned from wearing her hijab. The trial is set for Sept. 7.