Sutherland’s role in successful student-athlete uniform bill

Written by William C. Duncan

March 8, 2023

In the recently concluded legislative session, Utah legislators approved a bill that provides an important protection to students in state schools so they will not have to choose between participation in athletics and acting in accordance with their religious beliefs or personal values regarding modesty.

The bill, HB 163, provides that if a school “requires a student to wear an athletic uniform for participation in an athletic activity,” it cannot prevent the student from “wearing religious clothing with the athletic uniform” or “wearing 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 passed both House and Senate with only one vote in opposition.

This type of legislation, focused on a very specific issue and intended to prevent conflicts over religious freedom rather than leave them to be determined in court disputes, is consistent with what Sutherland Institute has proposed as an ideal legislative approach to securing religious freedom.

In fact, in October 2021, Sutherland published a blog post highlighting similar legislation in Illinois. As a result, Sutherland helped facilitate conversations between religious groups and legislators about how to provide a similar protection in Utah.

In 2022, the Legislature passed a resolution, endorsed by Sutherland Institute, that called on local governments and schools to “not use policies and practices that exclude children and youth who seek to observe the [tenets] of their religion or personal values of modesty through their clothing from participating” in athletics. This included allowing students to modify “uniforms to accommodate religious clothing and headwear” and to make “modesty adjustments to uniforms.”

That resolution provided important guidance, but it became clear that more could be done to protect students. Specifically, the bill sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, became aware of a circumstance where a team was forced to forfeit a basketball game when referees would not let some of the team members play because they were wearing turbans.

Sutherland Institute is pleased with both the culmination of this multiyear effort and having played a critical role early on to getting it off the ground. The legislation reflects a constructive way of protecting religious freedom, continuing a positive approach in the state of Utah and providing a model for other states to follow.

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