March 30 (UPI) -- An Ohio legislator is sponsoring a bill that would ban requirements that student athletes get a waiver to wear religious apparel while competing.
Senate Bill 288 stems from the disqualification last fall of 16-year-old high school junior Noor Alexandria Abukaram from a cross-country track meet because she was wearing a hijab, a head scarf worn by Muslim women. Race officials said that under an Ohio High School Athletic Association rule, she was required to have a waiver to exempt her from a rule prohibiting headwear, and her coach had not submitted one.
Sen. Theresa Gavarone, the bill's sponsor, said her legislation is designed to protect religious expression for everyone.
"I want to make sure a student athlete doesn't have to choose between their religion and participating in sports," Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, said.
Noor, who attends Sylvania Northview High School in the Toledo area, had just run her personal best on Oct. 19 in the 5K -- 22 minutes and 22 seconds -- when officials disqualified her. The move was a surprise to the teen, who had participated in six previous competitions wearing a hijab with no problem.
"They decided to dust off the rule book," Noor said. "The reason why it hurt me so much was that I had worked so hard to get that spot on the varsity team."
OHSAA Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass apologized in an Oct. 25 tweet for the disqualification.
"Having a rule in place for those who wear religious articles is wrong, and we are taking immediate steps to have our board of directors modify this outdated regulation so that this does not happen again," he tweeted.
On Dec. 5, OHSAA dropped its requirement for a special advance waiver and mandated that if a player does not want to expose his or her head, referees shall approve a covering or wrap that does not fundamentally alter the sport; pose a danger to any other participant; is not attached in a way that is likely to come off during play; and is not deemed unsporting or offensive.
For exceptions that are not addressed in the revised rule, school administrators and head coaches are directed to contact the OHSAA sport administrator in advance of the competition date to discuss whether a waiver is available.
Gavarone, who introduced Senate Bill 28 on Feb. 26, praised OHSAA for responding quickly to the situation.
Her bill bars schools and interscholastic organizations from adopting rules that prohibit or create any obstruction to wearing religious apparel when competing or participating in athletics or extracurricular activities, including requiring waivers or advance approval.
Exceptions are allowed if wearing the apparel creates a legitimate danger and, in those cases, event officials must offer all reasonable accommodations. Religious apparel is defined as headwear, clothing, jewelry or other coverings worn while observing a sincerely held religious belief.
Senate Bill 288 has been referred to the Senate Education Committee.
"I'm looking forward to getting sponsor testimony and getting it through the committee process," Gavarone said. "The bill has support from the Christian community, the Jewish community and the Muslim community."
After her situation received widespread publicity, Noor began hearing from other athletes about similar incidents and was inspired to found Let Noor Run, an initiative to fight discrimination in sports around the country.
"It's a recurring thing and the stories are endless," she said of the resistance faced by some athletes who want to wear religious headgear such as hijabs and turbans.
Let Noor Run's first event, on Jan. 24 at Lourdes University in Sylvania, featured a panel discussion with Noor; Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, who played basketball for the University of Memphis and Indiana State University while wearing a hijab; and Amaiya Zafar, who, after a two-year battle with USA Boxing, became the first boxer to wear the hijab in a sanctioned bout.
The panelists talked about how athletes are often allowed to go so far before the rules suddenly stop them from going further, The Blade newspaper reported.
Abdul-Qaadir played basketball through college while wearing a hijab, but was prevented from playing professionally because of an International Basketball Federation rule that prohibited players from wearing head coverings. (The federation dropped the hijab ban in 2017.)
"In college, which was surprising, nobody ever asked for the waiver. The waivers are, honestly, they should be obsolete at this point," she said.