In today’s speech in Cairo, the President outlined his personal commitment to engagement with Muslim communities, based on mutual respect. He also emphasized that Islam and America are not competing identities and that the U.S. has a long history of defending freedom of faith, including going to court over it if need be. All of these aspects of the American tradition are woven into the story the President referenced of our Justice Department arguing for the right of a Muslim student to wear the hijab to school:
Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. (Applause.)
In 2004, Nashala Hearn was beginning sixth grade in Muskogee, Oklahoma. At the time, the 12-year-old began wearing a hijab – a Muslim headscarf – to school. While not all Muslim girls wear headscarves, some Muslims interpret the Islamic requirement of modesty to require the headscarf.
After wearing the hijab to school for several weeks without incident, Nashala was told by school officials that her headscarf conflicted with the school’s "no hats" policy, and that she could not continue to wear it. She and her parents told school officials that wearing the hijab was required by her faith and that she could not stop wearing it. When she continued to come to school wearing the headscarf, she was suspended from school twice.
Nashala’s decision to wear a headscarf was protected by the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection and religious freedom. Public primary and secondary schools, as well as public colleges and universities, should be open to all members of the public, regardless of their faith. Students should not face discrimination or harassment because of their faith background, beliefs, religious expression, or distinctive religious dress.
And so, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division stepped in to protect Nashala’s rights to equal protection of the law to wear a hijab.
The court-ordered agreement reached by the Justice Department with the school board permits Nashala, and any other child in Muskogee whose religious beliefs and practices conflict with the school dress code, to receive an accommodation. This decree reflects the principle that children should not have to choose between following the requirements of their faiths and their right to a public education, and is just one of the ways the American government ensures the rights of all of its citizens every day.