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A nationwide high school basketball rule is coming under fire after a local teen was kept from playing in a game for wearing a hijab.
Sixteen-year-old Je’Nan Hayes was sitting on the sideline of the regional championship game between her school, Watkins Mill High School and Oxon Hill High School on March 3. Hayes was waiting for her number to be called, but she never made it on the court.
“And then my coach had pulled me aside and she had said that she was sorry that I couldn't play, but there was a rule, a state rule saying that I had to have a letter from the state to play with my hijab on,” Je’Nan said.
Before the game, an official informed Watkins Mill Girls Varsity Basketball Coach Donita Adams that Je'Nan would need to provide evidence she's allowed to cover her head for religious reasons.
“We have never been informed of this rule and for me personally, I didn't agree with what was going on. She played all 24 games and then on the 25th game she was unable to play, so I needed clarification on that,” said Adams.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations rule book, head decorations and headwear are prohibited. However, state associations can make an exception for religious reasons if documented evidence is provided.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association sent ABC2 this statement:
"Unfortunately the officials made a strict interpretation of the National Federation of State High Schools playing rules for basketball instead of the spirit of the rule designed to ensure safety and competitive fairness. There should have been no denial of participation and we are committed to working with the school and the family to ensure this does not happen again."
This isn’t the first time this has happened in Maryland. In Frederick County in 2011, another young teen was told she could not play basketball because her hijab presented a safety risk.
“There’s obviously a disconnect between the governing bodies or the agencies providing these rules and the referees who are supposed to be enforcing them,” said Dr. Zainab Chaudry, the Maryland Outreach Manager with the Council on American Islamic Relations. "One of the reasons why Je'Nan was able to play 24 games in Montgomery County without any problem but yet the first game she played in Prince George's County she was barred from playing is because there's two different contractors who provided referees for those games."
Chaudry said they've reached out to the national organization about changing the rule, but they're also working to educate local referees.
“CAIR is going to be working with the public secondary schools association to provide diversity training to the contractors who provide referees so they're aware of the significance of the religious attire and why athletes should be able to play in team sports without having to forgo their religious attire,” said Chaudry.
Je'Nan said she was upset and angered that she couldn't play in the final game of the season but that the incident won't keep her from trying out for the team next year.
“No, I think this is motivation, I feel. I'm not discouraged whatsoever, since this has gone so far, I don't feel discouraged or angered I just have that hunger to succeed and I want to take this far,” said Je’Nan.
CAIR said they could not find evidence of any injuries associated with a player wearing a headscarf. They also have not yet heard back from the national federation about re-working the rule book.