MUSKOGEE — In what one supporter called “a ground-breaking step,” the Justice Department has been allowed to join a lawsuit supporting a Muslim girl suspended for wearing a head scarf to school.
Leah Farish, a Tulsa attorney for the family of Nashala Hearn, said Tuesday that Frank H. Seay, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, on Monday granted a Justice Department request to join in the federal lawsuit.
The move strengthens the girl’s constitutional fight for religious accommodation, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The Washington-based non-profit group promotes “an accurate image of Islam and Muslims in America,” according to its Web site.
Hooper said the Justice Department’s action “has great political significance beyond just the issue of whether a Muslim school girl can wear a head scarf. The government is sending a message that it will defend its Muslim citizens.”
“It’s a ground-breaking step,” he said. “I don’t think any administration has taken a step like this in defense of Muslim religious freedom.”
Nashala, an 11-year-old sixth-grade student at Ben Franklin Science Academy, was suspended twice for wearing the scarf, or hijab, but has been allowed to wear it while the case continues.
In filing a complaint and a request to enter the case, the Justice Department accused the Muskogee School District of violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Farish said she was glad the judge allowed the Justice Department to join the case.
“They will be in a great position to explain the federal education guidelines the school purports to rely on,” Farish said.
The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties organization, filed the suit in October on behalf of Nashala, alleging the school district violated her rights to free speech and to exercise her religion.
The lawsuit seeks to have the school revise its dress code to accommodate students’ religious dress and to expunge the girl’s suspensions.
School officials said the head covering violated the dress code. They said their code was based on federal education requirements and bars bandannas, hats, caps or other headwear in an effort to halt gang-related activity.
A settlement hearing is scheduled May 12.