The U.S. Department of Justice is taking the side of a Muslim girl who was suspended for wearing a headscarf.
MUSKOGEE — The family of a Muslim girl suspended from school last year for wearing a religious scarf got an unexpected boost Tuesday when the U.S. Department of Justice asked to intervene in the family’s lawsuit against the Muskogee district.
“I think it’s tremendous,” said Eyvine Hearn, the father of Nashala Hearn. “It makes us feel good to know that someone else is seeing it the way we see it.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta alleged that Muskogee Public Schools violated Nashala Hearn’s civil rights when it suspended her twice last year for wearing a hijab.
The sixth-grader is back in school, but the district has not changed its policy.
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in September at the U.S. Eastern District Courthouse in Muskogee.
“Defendants have discriminated on the basis of religion by maintaining a practice or policy under which they permit students, notwithstanding the dress code, to wear head coverings for certain non-religious reasons, but refusing to provide such permission to Nashala,” Acosta wrote.
“Unless enjoined by this court, defendants will continue to violate the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties group, filed the suit on behalf of Nashala and her father in October. She was suspended twice earlier that month from Benjamin Franklin Science Academy.
The school had allowed her to wear the hijab — a type of scarf favored by some Muslim women — for several weeks before suspending her.
In March, the Hearns’ attorney amended the lawsuit to allege that the dress-code policy violated the Equal Protection clause of the federal Constitution. The family’s attorney, Leah Farish, alleged that additional evidence indicated that the district made exceptions for secular dress, according to reports.
Those allegations attracted the attention of the Justice Department.
“The Justice Department had interviewed my client a few months ago,” Farish said. “Both sides knew (about the Justice Department’s interest in the case) and were talking to the department.”
If granted, the Justice Department could file briefs supporting the family’s position in the lawsuit. It would not supercede the family’s position nor gain any part in potential financial damages awarded.
“The United States seeks to intervene in this lawsuit to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment and to ensure that public school districts do not unlawfully discriminate on the basis of religion,” Tuesday’s motion read.
“When public schools discriminate, the United States has an interest in having such conduct declared unlawful.”
The family also is asking for $80,000 in damages and that the dress code be rewritten to allow religious headwear.
Muskogee school attorney D.D. Hayes pointed out that a judge has not ruled on the Justice Department’s motion yet. He also vowed that the district will continue to maintain its stance in favor of the current dress-code policy.
In fact, Hayes said, Muskogee is simply following federal educational guidelines concerning dress codes.
“If we’re misinterpreting them, maybe they can help us,” he said. “I don’t know where they’re coming from.”
Farish said she was “gratified” by the Justice Department’s motion and hoped that would encourage the Muskogee school district to change its policies.
“It gives us a big gun,” the plaintiff’s attorney said. “I hope (the district) will see reason soon.”
Muskogee School Superintendent Eldon Gleichman has defended the district’s position — which prohibits all headwear — as fair and consistent. He has publicly worried that secular groups, including gangs and satanists, would take advantage of any relaxed stance on headwear.
Critics have argued that the district allows students to wear crosses and that other districts have allowed the religious scarfs.
“I don’t know about any district but ours,” Hayes replied. “The guidelines by the U.S. Department of Education say we’re required not to allow deviations from dress codes for religious purposes.”
Hayes also planned to filed a motion to end the case, arguing the dress code is valid according to the guidelines and legal precedent.
“We think what we’re doing is what the court will say is right,” he said.
“We don’t have an ax to grind,” Hayes added. “We’re simply trying to follow the law.”