Ohio’s Senate Bill 288, which protects “student religious expression in interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities”, received unanimous approval from Ohio’s Senate Education Committee. The Bill now awaits Senate approval.
Introduced in February 2020, the Bill prevents any public or non-public school from restricting the wearing of religious apparel while competing in school sports or extracurricular activities. It also prevents them from requiring any type of advanced approval, written waivers or any other permission to wear the religious apparel prior to participating in a sport.
The bill, sponsored by State Senator Theresa Gavarone, was created in response to the controversy caused by the disqualification of runner Noor Alexandria Abukaram, 16, during a cross country race. Abukaram, who began wearing a hijab in 2016, was disqualified from a cross-country race while she was running. Her coach emphasized that she had not applied for a waiver at the district-level allowing her to participate in a hijab as it was considered a violation of proper uniform.
Abukaram’s testified about her experience and the need for legislative reform at a meeting of the Ohio Senate Education Committee earlier this month. “(Abukaram’s mother) didn’t deem the hijab a uniform change, just as they don’t deem a student wearing a necklace with a cross on it a uniform change. It’s not a uniform, it’s something that I wear because of my religion, it’s a part of me” said Abukaram to the Senate Education Committee.
During the committee hearing, Abukaram also received an apology from Senator Vernon Sykes. “I’d like to apologize to you as a policy maker that a policy was in place that was so insensitive and it harmed you in the way that it did,” Sykes said.
Howie Beigelman, of the Ohio Jewish Communities, also provided written testimony stating that it is not the government’s place to allow the infringement of religious rights and that allowing student athletes to wear religious clothing around their peers provides more benefits than harm. “Such interactions on the field and on the court help disprove stereotypes, educate in a unique way, break down barriers, and build friendships,” Beigelman said.
After Gavarone reached out to Abukaram as the bill was in its drafting stages, the runner also started an advocacy initiative, “Let Noor Run.” The initiative’s goal was to end discrimination in sports, especially based on religious apparel. In an interview with the New York Times, Abukaram made it clear that wearing a hijab while playing a sport is not uncommon, referencing hijab-wearing Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Muhammad, along with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, also showed support towards the runner’s initiative.
“This bill really just emulates everything I’ve been working towards” said Abukaram at the time the bill was created. “The whole idea is just to make sure this never happens to anyone ever again, whether they’re Muslim or whatever it is that they believe in. They shouldn’t have to stop playing sports because of their beliefs.”
“Freedom of religion is a fundamental right and civil liberty in this country” said Gavarone added. “My hope is that through this legislation and Noor’s story we will be able to ensure that no one, regardless of religious affiliation, has to choose between playing a sport or their religious beliefs.”