The hallways of Benjamin Franklin Science Academy in quiet Muskogee, Oklahoma, are far from those of the tough, lower-class Paris suburbs where the battle was fought over the right of Muslim girls to wear head scarves required by their religion.
The Muskogee school system is small and peaceful; its part-time attorney, D.D. Hayes, said he was far more likely to spend time poring over contracts for a new school gymnasium than over big constitutional issues. But this week the federal government came knocking. The Justice Department is intervening on the side of an 11-year-old Muslim girl, Nashala Hearn, who has been banned from classes for wearing a head scarf to her Muskogee school. That is exactly opposite to the approach taken by the French government, which stirred up controversy in that country. The French prohibition on wearing religious garb to schools, the Bush administration said earlier this year, violated “a basic right that should be protected.”
While Hearn is just one girl in a small heartland town, Muslim groups say she represents a growing number of Muslim women in America who, as their faith has become both more conspicuous and more controversial since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, have chosen to wear their scarves, or hijabs, in public. To Hayes and the Muskogee school district, Hearn’s scarf clearly violated a system-wide ban on the wearing of hats, caps, bandannas or jacket hoods. To the Justice Department, however, Muskogee was infringing on Hearn’s constitutional right to practice her religion freely. Hearn, a sixth grader, has twice been temporarily barred from Benjamin Franklin Science Academy. The first exclusion came not long after the second anniversary of the 2001 attacks, the second after she returned to school a few days later, still wearing a head scarf. The matter has caused what one resident called “a big hullabaloo” in Muskogee, a town of about 40,000 best known to Americans as a place people fled during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s – and a town with few Muslims. The Justice Department this week filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma and filed a motion to intervene in private litigation by the girl’s parents. “No student should be forced to choose between following her faith and enjoying the benefits of a public education,” Assistant Attorney General Alexander Acosta said in announcing the action. Hayes pointed to a federal Education Department guideline that says, “schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation.”0