Friday, June 17, 2011

Religious Accommodation in Athletics - Updated

One of my areas of academic interest is religious accommodation, both in law and in social custom. I'm interested in ways to facilitate a society in which people are free to participate in society as much as they desire while also being as religious as they desire. I think one of the best ways to achieve this is for everybody to communicate, set aside their preconceived notions about the other side, and work to reach a solution that works for everybody. (Wow, I sound like an HR person even when I'm not at work...)

The past few weeks, there have been a few stories in the news regarding religious accommodations (or lack thereof) in athletics. The typical religious accommodation in athletics stories that I hear about in the news involve people who observe a holy day and have to choose between keeping that day holy and competing in an important event. (Think Chariots of Fire.) However, the recent stories have involved religious dress requirements that have come into conflict with competition rules.
  • The Iranian women's soccer team was disqualified from a soccer match because the team members insisted on wearing hijab (a scarf that covers the hair and neck) while playing.
  • A weightlifter in Atlanta, Georgia was declared ineligible for national competition because she competes while wearing hijab. [Update: She has now successfully challenged the rule and is able to compete while wearing hijab.]
  • A member of Israel's women's basketball team was disqualified from a competition in Europe for wearing a t-shirt under her sleeveless jersey. (Incidentally, when she played for the University of Toledo, she was permitted to wear a shirt under her jersey.)
The first time I heard of someone having to alter an athletic outfit to satisfy religious observance was several years ago during the summer Olympics. The network was showing one of those puff pieces about the athletes. It was the story of a distance runner who was Pentecostal, and her beliefs required her to wear skirts. She started running as a teenager, and she designed a special running skirt that would allow her to run freely and still observe her beliefs. I wasn't personally religious myself at the time, but I thought it was cool that she was committed to her beliefs and that she was able to find a way to compete while still dressing the way she felt God required.

I was a ballerina when I was in college, and by this time I had become religious. As I'm sure most of my readers know, many practicing LDS adults, both men and women, wear an article of religious clothing (called the Garment of the Holy Priesthood, often shortened in conversation simply to "the garment") that goes roughly from the chest to the knees and also covers the shoulders. Women's dance leotards resemble a one-piece swimsuit and are paired with semi-sheer tights.

So, I was faced with a dilemma. Many people told me I should just forgo wearing the garment while dancing. However, I didn't find that to be an acceptable solution.[1] So, I hunted around for a leotard with sleeves, and I paired it with matching knee-length bike shorts. This allowed me to dance while wearing the garment. Once my ballet instructor knew that my alteration in standard dance attire was for religious reasons, she was completely fine with it. I was still able to fully participate in all activities. One of my classmates wore hijab while dancing, and she was also able to fully participate.

This brings me back to the three recent examples in the news. There's no reason these women can't be accommodated. If I can cover my shoulders as a ballerina, surely a basketball player can still play with covered shoulders.[2] If my classmate could be a ballerina while wearing hijab, why can't a soccer player or a weightlifter wear similar attire?

Someone shouldn't be forced to choose between athletics and religion when there is such an easy solution available.

[1] I'm aware that it is considered appropriate to not wear the garment while playing sports, and I'm not judging anyone who chooses not to wear it while working out. This was a personal decision for me, and whether or not my decision was objectively necessary is not the subject for this post. (And, for what it's worth, I do go swimming in a regular athletic swimsuit. Although, with how cold the ocean is around here, and how badly I sunburn, a wetsuit might be prudent for completely secular reasons.)
[2] In fact, I was on my ROTC unit's basketball team when I was in college, and our uniforms covered our shoulders. We did just fine. Bare shoulders are not essential to the playing of basketball.

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