MUSKOGEE — A lawsuit on behalf of a Muslim girl suspended from school for wearing a head scarf was amended Monday to include a demand for $80,000 in damages.
Attorneys for 11-year-old Nashala Hearn also added a claim in the lawsuit that Muskogee Public Schools violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
The suit, which previously sought only $1 in compensatory damages, claims the school’s dress code discriminates unjustly against religious clothing.
“It would appear exceptions have been made to the dress code for nonreligious reasons, but the religious reason sought by or advanced by this little girl was not recognized as legitimate,” said Leah Farish, Nashala’s Tulsa-based attorney.
D.D. Hayes, attorney for the schools, said he could not yet comment because he had not had enough time to examine the amended complaint. He said he anticipated responding in writing within 20 days.
The district suspended Nashala in October for wearing a head scarf that officials believe violates the districtwide dress code. The child wears the hijab as part of her observance of the Muslim religion.
The sixth-grader returned to school Oct. 15 after twice being suspended for wearing the scarf. The district said she could wear the hijab while Hayes reviewed the district’s policies.
The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties group, filed the lawsuit on the Hearn family’s behalf in U.S. District Court in Muskogee, alleging the school district violated Nashala’s rights to free speech and exercise of religion.
The lawsuit also asks that school officials revise their dress code to accommodate students’ religious dress and to expunge the girl’s two suspensions. Trial is set for Sept. 7.
On Monday, the plaintiff’s added the alleged violation of the equal protection clause, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees citizens equal protection under the law. There is a similar clause in the Oklahoma Constitution cited in the lawsuit.
The new allegation says school officials’ policy exemptions allowing students to wear bandages, sweatbands and costumes on their heads but not religious garments shows prejudice against religion.
“Apparently, religious reasons don’t carry the weight that secular reasons carry,” Farish said.
Previously, the lawsuit had asked for only $1 dollar in damages and attorneys’ fees and court costs to compensate for alleged humiliation, loss of civil rights and education and mental distress.
But now, the plaintiffs are asking for $30,000 for Eyvine Hearn, Nashala’s father, and $50,000 for Nashala in addition to other costs the court deems necessary and court and attorneys’ fees.
“It represents our valuation of the extent of damage both to her civil rights and to her experience at her school,” Farish said.