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U.S. to defend Muslim girl wearing scarf in school

Federal position will oppose Oklahoma school district policy

Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

Nashala Hearn says she thinks it's unfair that other students can wear crosses but she can't wear her hijab.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department announced Tuesday the government's civil rights lawyers have jumped into a legal case to support a Muslim girl's right to wear a head scarf in a public school.

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Alex Acosta said government lawyers would support 11-year-old Nashala Hearn, a sixth-grade student who has sued the Muskogee, Oklahoma, Public School District for ordering her to remove her head scarf, or hijab, because it violated the dress code of the Benjamin Franklin Science Academy, which she attended.

The girl continued to wear her hijab to school and was subsequently suspended twice for doing so. The family appealed the suspensions, which were upheld by a district administrative hearing committee.

Her parents filed suit against the Muskogee School District last October.

On Tuesday the federal government filed a motion in a federal court in Muskogee to intervene in support of Nashala's position.

"No student should be forced to choose between following her faith and enjoying the benefits of a public education," Acosta said in a statement accompanying the government's court filing.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations -- which has often been critical of the Bush administration's policies -- praised the government's support in the case.

"This moves comes in a time when the Muslim community feels like they are being singled out and their civil rights threatened," a statement from the group said.

"The news also sends out a message to the international community, especially some European countries where the wearing of the head scarf is being banned, that America will defend its citizens' religious freedoms."

With the move, the U.S. government takes a position directly opposite that taken by the government of France, which earlier this year banned Muslim head scarves in public schools. (Latest story)

The dress code in the Muskogee schools prohibits students from wearing hats, caps, bandannas or jacket hoods inside school buildings.

"We certainly respect local school systems' authority to set dress standards, and otherwise regulate their students, but such rules cannot come at the cost of constitutional liberties," Acosta said. "Religious discrimination has no place in American schools."

In its complaint, the government said the school district violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which it said bars states from applying dress codes in a discriminatory manner. The government asked to have the dress code policy revised.

The government court filing said Nashala was allowed to return to school wearing her hijab at the conclusion of the second suspension while the school district considered whether to re-evaluate its policy.

The school maintains that Nashala remains in violation of the dress code and is subject to further suspension at any time.

In its motion to intervene, the government sought to assure the court that its move would in no way delay the private case brought by the family.

The government said it might want to depose additional witnesses in the four months remaining for the parties to complete discovery.

There are more than six months before the trial is scheduled to begin in Muskogee, seat of the Eastern District of Oklahoma.

Last year, a Florida judge rejected a woman's request to have her face covered by a veil for her state driver's license photograph.

The woman, a Muslim, argued that a state order to remove her veil infringed on her religious beliefs.

The judge agreed with the state that allowing a face to be covered for an identification photo could be exploited by terrorists. (Full story)

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