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Should religious, modest clothing be allowed with sports uniforms?

Utah lawmaker proposes bill allowing students to wear religious, modest attire in school sports

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Luna Banuri, executive director of Utah Muslim Civic League, is photographed in Salt Lake City.

Luna Banuri, executive director of Utah Muslim Civic League, is photographed in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Water Canyon High School wrestler John West chooses to wear shorts over his wrestling uniform for his own modesty standards.

“Exposing yourself should be a personal choice, like how much you do reveal and don’t reveal,” said Tadi West, the boy’s mother. 

“There are situations where some people express those desires ... people’s expectations and standards might vary, but whatever situation (the student) feels comfortable in, it’s your body and feeling comfortable in the appropriate clothing is important.”

A Utah lawmaker has a bill that would prevent schools from prohibiting student-athletes from wearing clothing for religious or modesty purposes while participating in sports.

HB163, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, is designed to give students a voice in modesty standards and religious attire when competing in athletics.

“I had more and more students reaching out to me of different faiths, who had had barriers and challenges in trying to participate in athletics,” Pierucci said.

Utah isn’t the only state considering or passing laws creating such protections for people of faith. Illinois and Ohio adjusted school sports rules to ensure that young athletes can wear faith-related garb as they compete. 

“We decided one of the major issues we want to address is making sure every child has an opportunity to participate in athletics,” said Maaria Mozaffar, director of advocacy and policy for the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, to Religion News Service.

Utah lawmakers passed a resolution on the issue in 2022, motivated by the Norwegian handball team. The team was fined for allowing women to wear non-bikini uniforms, and acted as a spark to the ongoing conversation about sports uniforms.

The resolution, which aimed to solve some of the issues surrounding religious and modesty wear in athletics, encouraged schools and other youth athletic groups to “revise internal policies and allow all children and youth participating in athletic activities to wear religious clothing or headwear or to modify their uniforms to accommodate religious beliefs and personal values of modesty.”  

However, it did not mandate a change or lead to the results that legislators had hoped for.

HB163 is designed to allow students from all walks of life to have a voice in the religious wear and modesty standards of the athletic attire they choose to compete in.

The bill also says schools must provide the garment should there be a requirement on the color, style or material, so students don’t have to invest in attire that may be pricey and difficult to find.

No clear rules on religious, modest attire

Currently, rules regarding athletic uniforms vary among schools and school districts. The decision to allow modest or religious garments is left to a variety of people, including referees or umpires, coaches, principals or a school board.

Pierucci cited examples of students’ struggles involving religious attire and athletics.

In her district, Pierucci said two boys were playing a sport at a high school for a club team. Before the young men could play, the referee confronted the boys, saying “get those towels off your heads,” according to Pierucci. The boys, who were wearing turbans, attempted to explain that it was a key part of their religion. The referee refused to allow the boys to participate. The coach of the team, standing by the boys, forfeited the game, she said.

“I think we should be extra sensitive to people practicing their religion,” Pierucci said. “To me, Utah should be a leader in our country in safeguarding religious freedom, and that is why this bill is so important to me.”

“I commend these young men and young women for being willing to practice their faith,” she said.

Pierucci said that the concept of religious freedom should not only apply to the predominant religion in an area, but should apply to all faiths.

“More and more communities are stepping forward to support this (bill) where they have experienced discrimination, persecution or at the very least prohibition on wearing their religious clothing or headwear while trying to participate in sports,” she said.

Religious community support

Pierucci worked with the Utah Muslim Civic League on the legislation.

The league, she said, has been a key advocate for the bill. She said that the Sikh community and Jewish community have also been key contributors, with members stepping forward to reveal their stories.

“As an organization that works on the intersection of different faiths and specifically the Muslim community, we had been looking at issues that pose a challenge to our children,” said Luna Banuri, Utah Muslim Civic League executive director. “Bullying is one of the biggest issues for our community.”

Banuri explained the process of looking deeper into the issue and discussing ways to help children in Muslim community feel a sense of belonging. Sports, the league acknowledges, are a great way to not only develop coping strategies for individuals, but instill the desire of belonging in a school community.

Banuri pointed to college athletics, saying “there is not a single Muslim woman in collegiate sports, and that is truly heartbreaking.” These Muslim girls don’t have role models in athletics, and are paving their own path, she said.

The status quo and the challenges that people have to go through in order to adhere to their modesty and religious standards to participate in athletics is harmful, she said.

“The idea is that you cannot have your faith and your civil rights together,” Banuri said.

“Sports is something that creates equality across different faiths, socioeconomics and everything,” she said. “It should be a level playing ground.”

Banuri described how children from her community are not looking for trouble, and when they are confronted with it they often “self-censor,” no longer attempting to participate in athletics.

“If we are looking to create one Utah, we need to understand how diverse Utah is becoming, and we need to be more inclusive,” Banuri said.

“All faiths have modesty standards. We believe this affects multiple communities,” she said. “I feel it comes down to your personal modesty standard.”