Education officials in Muskogee have twice suspended Nashala Hearn from Benjamin Franklin Science Academy for violating school dress code by wearing the hijab or Muslim headscarf.

The 11-year-old is scheduled to return to school next week after her latest five-day suspension, but officials say Hearn will not be admitted to class if she continues to wear the scarf.

The school district's dress code bans students from wearing hats, caps, bandanas or other headwear inside school buildings, and was initially devised to deter gang-related activity.

No exceptions

Education officials in the town, 200km east of Oklahoma City, said they were not inclined to make exceptions to the rule on religious grounds.

"We have to be as neutral as possible with all religious requests," said Eldon Gleichman, superintendent of Muskogee Public Schools.

"I can't let the door open for one and not expect the door to be thrown open wide for everybody."

"We have to be as neutral as possible with all religious requests. I can't let the door open for one and not expect the door to be thrown open wide for everybody"

Eldon Gleichman,
Muskogee Public Schools

Hearn's father, Eyvine Hearn, an African-American who converted to Islam, is determined his daughter won't back down.

Controversial debate

"She's not going to compromise her religion. We can't turn our back on God."

Several heavyweight national rights groups have waded into the debate, including the Washington-based Muslim advocacy group, CAIR, (Council on American-Islamic Relations).

"This is a clear violation of the student's right to freely practice her faith," said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.

He cited US Department of Education guidelines that say schools cannot bar students from wearing headscarves during the school day where it is part of a student's religious practice.

Rules

Muskogee education officials likewise insisted the law was on their side.

"We're just following the rules," said DD Hayes, attorney for Muskogee Public Schools, citing a 1995 US Department of Education policy.

However, Hearn's advocates are confident that legal precedent will bear them out.