Was it right for officials of the Montgomery Invitational track meet to disqualify runner Juashaunna Kelly because she wore a special track suit to comply with her Muslim religion? Ms. Kelly, a senior at Theodore Roosevelt High School in D.C., has won many races while wearing a unitard that covers her skin completely, in compliance with her religious beliefs. You can see Ms. Kelly in this attire here. The photo with this blog is not Ms. Kelly but an Olympic runner from Bahrain in similar attire designed for a Muslim female runner, read about her on the website linked here.
Uniform rules in sports are very strict. Professional football players incur fines when they adorn their uniforms with unapproved signs or material. Even Trinity’s basketball players know that the NCAA rules require all jerseys to be tucked in. The discipline of uniform rules is part of ensuring an equal playing field for all.
But when sensible rules clash with profound religious beliefs, is some accommodation possible without losing the point of the rule? I think so. Surely, in this case, since Ms. Kelly has been a star runner for several years, the Maryland officials could have come up with a different solution other than banning her from the meet. News stories reported that the main problem is that the unitard is two colors, when the uniform rules require one color. Goodness knows that this minor variance would not have disrupted the meet or given the runner an unfair advantage.
Administrators exist to figure out how to maintain order and uphold sensible rules while also accommodating the vast array of human needs we encounter each day. Religious beliefs are very important, and when young people want to express their beliefs, sensible administrators should try to encourage that kind of good conduct, rather than sending a message that religion is unimportant or impossible to accommodate. We employers accommodate religious beliefs and other needs all the time. A society based on justice finds sensible ways to respect and accommodate the diversity of belief among us.
See a related National Geographic article on athletic wear for Muslim women.