Sutherland supports HB 163 on student-athletes’ religious, modesty requests

Written by William C. Duncan

February 2, 2023

Utah state Rep. Candice Pierucci recently shared with the Deseret News a disturbing incident that took place in her legislative district:

[T]wo boys were playing a sport at a high school for a club team. Before the young men could play, the referee confronted the boys, saying ‘get those towels off your heads,’ according to Pierucci. The boys, who were wearing turbans, attempted to explain that it was a key part of their religion. The referee refused to allow the boys to participate. The coach of the team, standing by the boys, forfeited the game, she said.

Every person of faith and even those without particular religious beliefs benefit when they are given reasonable accommodations to act on their most cherished beliefs, but that ideal is not always respected.

In the context of school athletics, Pierucci is seeking to elevate that respect to the level of law.

In 2022, the Utah Legislature unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the ability of student athletes to be accommodated in “their religious clothing, headwear, practices and beliefs, or personal values of modesty without uniform waivers.”

This legislative session, the Legislature is considering a bill that would make that endorsement a legal requirement. HB 163 – Protecting Student Religious and Moral Beliefs Regarding Athletic Uniform Requirements would direct schools and athletic associations that require a specific uniform to allow student athletes to wear “religious clothing with the athletic uniform” or wear “clothing under, or with, but not substantially covering, the athletic uniform to, consistent with the student’s religious or moral beliefs, cover or conceal parts of the student’s body that are not covered or concealed by the athletic uniform.”

The bill recognizes a right of students “while participating in an athletic activity that an association or educational organization sponsors or regulates” to wear the religious clothing or the clothing necessary to reconcile a uniform with the athlete’s beliefs. Schools are free to adopt requirements for clothing that do not violate a student’s religious or moral beliefs but will have to provide the required clothing for the student.

Sutherland Institute supports this legislation because it protects a key principle: The state needs to accommodate religious and modesty concerns of student-athletes so that they are not required to choose between athletic participation, with all of its benefits, and adherence to their deeply held beliefs, with all of their personal and social benefits.

In a time where loneliness and other challenges seem to be particularly salient for youth, it is good to remember that religious practice promotes mental, physical and behavioral health. It is linked to better physical health and healthy habits. Adherence to religious beliefs and practices protects against the risk of drug abuse and facilitates recovery. Religious belief is associated with improved psychological resilience.

Improved mental and behavioral health and reduced drug abuse among religious youth obviously improves the lives of religious children. But the positive impact of more resilient and thriving religious children extends through their relationships to their non-religious friends and loved ones as well. Further accommodating religious practice in the ways enabled by HB 163 serves to extend the secular social benefits of religion in the lives of the religious and nonreligious alike.

In 2021, Illinois adopted a similar law that directs school boards to “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.”

Utah is well known as a welcoming state that adopts forward-thinking policies to prevent religious freedom conflicts. HB 163 is a good example of such a policy; it points towards a positive approach to religious accommodation for Utah and provides a valuable example to other states.

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