Athletic uniforms and religious freedom: Illinois takes a positive step

Written by William C. Duncan

October 1, 2021

Unexpectedly, athletic uniforms have been in the news. During the Olympics, some athletes raised important questions about what they were required to wear. Columnist Bethany Mandel explained: “The concept of ‘modesty’ is experiencing a bit of a golden moment at the Olympics, as women competing in Tokyo have stood up for their right to show as little or as much of their bodies as they please, challenging their sports’ rules on ‘proper’ attire.”

In one instance, “the German gymnastics team wore a full-body unitard that has traditionally only been donned by women competing from more religious or conservative countries” as a protest against “sexualization in gymnastics.” In another, the women’s handball team from Norway was “slapped with fines for daring to show less skin, opting instead for the uniform their male counterparts wear.”

For some athletes, uniforms are a matter of faith.

In 2011, a Muslim athlete was disqualified from a weightlifting competition because she wore “loose long pants that extend below her ankles, a long-sleeve fitted shirt with a loose T-shirt over it, and a hijab covering her hair.”

An Orthodox Jewish basketball player in Israel was disqualified for wearing “a T-shirt under her jersey in order to comply with Jewish religious rules relating to modesty.”

Recently, Illinois became the first state to enact legislation that would protect the ability of people of faith to participate in school athletics (both in high school and college) without having to abandon their commitment to live consistent with standards of their faith. The law applies to both public and private schools recognized by the state.

The basic requirement in the legislation is:

A school board must allow a student athlete to modify his or her athletic or team uniform for the purpose of modesty in clothing or attire that is in accordance with the requirements of his or her religion or his or her cultural values or modesty preferences. The modification of the athletic or team uniform may include, but is not limited to, the wearing of a hijab, an undershirt, or leggings. If a student chooses to modify his or her athletic or team uniform, the student is responsible for all costs associated with the modification of the uniform and the student shall not be required to receive prior approval from the school board for such modification. However, nothing in this Section prohibits a school from providing the modification to the student.

The bill does require that the modified uniform be safe.

This is a very positive development. Many conflicts, often inadvertent, have to be resolved in litigation. Illinois’ legislature wisely took the initiative to provide reasonable and appropriate protections to student athletes so they can pursue the sports they want to participate in without having to do so in a way that conflicts with their faith commitments. This would be a good model for other states, including Utah.

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