The Tennessee association that oversees high school and junior high school sports activities voted Thursday to amend its rules to allow athletes with religious headwear to play without seeking a waiver.
The amended bylaws were unanimously approved by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) and will go into effect immediately.
The new rule comes three months after HuffPost reported on a local high school athlete, Najah Aqeel, who was disqualified from playing in school volleyball games after a referee said that her hijab violated the rules.
Aqeel, a ninth-grader at Valor Collegiate Academies, a network of public charter schools in Nashville, told HuffPost in September that neither she nor her coaches knew anything about the requirement and that she had played in previous games without a problem. Aqueel said she was devastated by the sudden implementation of the obscure rule.
Reacting to Thursday’s decision, she said, “I have no idea why God chose me for this mission, but I am honored to have been part of a change that will affect so many people in the world. I want to thank the TSSAA for their part in taking such a huge step in making everyone feel included in the sports arena.”
The referee who disqualified Aqeel from playing cited a rule from the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) casebook that requires state association approval for religious head coverings, with the rationale that they represent a change in uniform.
After the incident, Aqeel’s school submitted a proposal to the TSSAA asking to do away with a waiver requirement for religious headgear. The approval of the request ”demonstrates how the organization’s process works in regards to the bylaws the member schools abide by,” said Bernard Childress, TSSAA’s executive director.
“A school saw a need for a change and through the legislative process, they submitted a proposal for the change, and the Legislative Council, which is school administrators elected by their peers, voted to enact the proposal,” Childress said.
The state association said it was working with the NFHS to eliminate the rule for all athletes nationwide. The NFHS did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Todd Dickson, the Valor school network’s CEO, lauded the TSSAA’s decision and urged that similar rules be overturned elsewhere in the country.
“This is a great forward step for all student-athletes in Tennessee to be able to express their religion freely without fear of discrimination,” Dickson said. “We are so proud that an overwhelming number of TSSAA member schools across the state stood with us and voted to enact this change, and we are hopeful for the elimination of this rule nationwide.”
Policies on religious headwear affecting athletes have been revisited in recent years, both at the local and global levels.
After being disqualified for wearing a hijab during her school district’s cross-country meet last year, teenager Noor Alexandria Abukaram successfully lobbied the Ohio state Senate to pass a bill to prohibit rules by schools and interscholastic organizations that ban the wearing of religious apparel during athletic events. The bill has stalled in the state House, however.
In 2017, the International Basketball Federation overturned its long-criticized ban on religious headwear, including the hijab.
Following a lawsuit, the International Boxing Association announced last year that Muslim women would be allowed to compete in a hijab.