Suit Settled on Behalf of Girl Suspended for Wearing Headscarf

By Melanie Arter | July 7, 2008 | 8:21pm EDT

( - Lawyers for an eleven-year-old Muslim girl in Oklahoma, who was suspended twice for wearing a headscarf because of her religion, have settled a lawsuit with the Muskogee Public School District.

Under the terms of the agreement, the school district has agreed to change its dress code to allow exceptions for religious reasons. The settlement also requires the school district to put together a training program for all teachers and administrators about the new dress code and to publicize the change.

"This is a great victory for free speech and religious freedom," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which represented the girl. "It's also a reminder that our public schools need to foster diversity and accommodate religious beliefs."

Institute attorneys filed suit in federal district court in October 2003 against the school district arguing that the school's actions violated Nashala Hearn's rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and due process as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Nashala and her family are followers of the Islamic faith, which requires females to wear a headscarf called a "hijab" in public places, a requirement Nashala has consistently followed in expressing her commitment to her Islamic religious beliefs.

Last year, Nashala began attending the sixth grade at Benjamin Franklin Science Academy, a public middle school. On Sept. 11, 2003, the school principal told Nashala that she would no longer be allowed to wear her hijab to school, because it was prohibited by the school dress code.

Institute attorneys have pointed out that while the dress code prohibits "hats, caps, bandannas, plastic caps, and hoods on jackets inside the [school] building," it makes no mention of hijabs or any other kind of religious head covering.

Despite the principal's warning, Nashala continued to wear the hijab to school and was suspended on Oct. 1, 2003, for three days. Upon returning to school on Oct. 7, she was suspended again, this time for five days.

Although Nashala was allowed to return to school until the matter was resolved and continued to wear the hijab, she was subject to sanction under the school dress code at the whim of her principal and other school authorities.

In asking the court to declare the school's dress code policy unconstitutional, the lawsuit sought to require school officials to revise the dress code to accommodate the religious dress of their students and expunge Nashala's educational record of the two suspensions.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department filed a motion to intervene in the case, affirming the public interest in Nashala's constitutional right to religious expression and equal protection under the law.

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