The United States government is taking a decidedly different approach from that of the French government when it comes to students who want to wear religious clothing to school. The French government recently banned religious attire from its classrooms, citing France's tradition of secularism. In the United States, the federal government is intervening on behalf of a girl who wants to wear a religious head scarf, or hijab, to her sixth grade classes in the southern state of Oklahoma.
Nashala Hearn, 12, just started to wear a hijab this year. Her father, Eyvine Hearn, embraced Islam four years ago, but says he didn't want to force the religion on any of his three children. He left the decision up to them, and his eldest child, a teenaged daughter, still does not practice the faith. Last August, shortly before school began, Nashala, who's the youngest, told her parents she wanted to honor Allah by wearing a hijab. Mr. Hearn says he and his wife spoke to Nashala's teacher about it before classes began.
"We let her know that we were Muslims, and that we pray at certain times of the day, and I gave her a prayer schedule," he said. "The teacher was excited, for reasons of world culture. She was thinking of having me come in as a speaker and speak on our religion."
Nashala wore her hijab to school every day throughout the month of August. She says she got a lot of questions from her fellow students about why she wears it and whether she ever takes it off. Until the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, none of the opinions expressed to her about the hijab were negative. Then came the morning of September 11, 2003.
"I was standing in the breakfast line, and then my teacher told me that after I got done eating my breakfast, I had to go and call my parents, because it looked like a bandana," she said.
Nashala Hearn's hijab "looked like a bandana". Those were the words used by school officials when they explained to Eyvine Hearn that Nashala was violating the school's dress code by wearing her hijab to class. Several years ago, the Muskogee School District banned hooded jackets and bandanas from its schools, as a way of curbing gang violence. Those two items of clothing are often worn by students wishing to identify themselves as belonging to a particular gang. Eyvine Hearn said he and his wife told the school principal that what Nashala was wearing wasn't a bandana.
"Right away, my wife tried to straighten her out and said, 'religious hijab' and the principal insisted on calling it a 'bandana', so we had a little verbal confrontation there," he recalled.
That verbal confrontation eventually became a lawsuit, one that the U.S. Department of Justice has now signed onto. In a statement released by the DOJ earlier this month, Assistant Attorney General Alexander Acosta said, "No student should be forced to choose between following her faith and enjoying the benefits of a public education."
John Whitehead is president of the Rutherford Institute, a legal advocacy group that's representing the Hearn family in their case against the school district. He said that the interest shown by the Justice Department sends a powerful message not just to the Muskogee, Oklahoma school district, but to school officials everywhere.
"Attorney General John Ashcroft has certified this case as one of 'general public importance' on behalf of this little girl," he added. "That's a good position, I think, for the government to take, because our government is basically saying that the schools should exercise tolerance."
Nashala Hearn's family is seeking $80,000 in damages from the school district. They also want officials to change the dress code, so that religious attire will be permitted. The attorney for the school district, D.D. Hayes, would not comment to VOA on tape, but in an unrecorded phone conversation, he said the district's dress code does not single out religious clothing, and so it's in compliance with U.S. Department of Education guidelines. Nashala Hearn was suspended twice for wearing her hijab. She's now been temporarily allowed to wear it to class until school officials decide if the dress code needs to be revised.
The Rutherford Institute's John Whitehead says the issue of school dress codes has been simmering for a number of years now and not just because of September 11th and the backlash against Muslims that occurred in some communities.
"Here you have someone who's daring to be different, he said. "I'd say since the mid-1990s, and especially since the Columbine incident, where children were killed in a school, in a massacre, the schools have been very intent on exercising, in many instances, too much control. Very little tolerance is shown now for those who dare to be different."
For her part, Nashala Hearn says she's learned a valuable lesson about religious liberty and her constitutional rights to free expression. The sixth-grade student says she's already begun to write a book about her experience.