Religion in Public Schools: Could school dress codes ban the hijab?

By Rebecca Robertson
Director, Public Policy and Advocacy

In a word, no!  School dress codes cannot, in most cases, be used to prevent students from wearing religious attire.

What does the law say on the subject?  Both the Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA) protect students’ rights to wear religious attire in school.  The law is very strict: a Texas public school can only prevent a student from wearing religious attire if there is no less restrictive way to further the school’s compelling interest.

Despite the law, school dress codes are often problematic.  In our experience, religious head coverings in school are the subject of a lot of confusion.   Many faith traditions include the wearing of a head covering – such as a turban, yarmulke, or head scarf – as an expression of devotion or modesty.

But it’s not just kids who practice a minority faith who find themselves at odds with school administrators over these issues.  Even kids from so-called “mainstream” religious traditions can be impacted.  For example, although almost a third of Texans identified as Catholic in the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, some Texas school districts have tried to ban rosaries.

Schools that insist on enforcing dress codes over kids’ sincere religious objections may find themselves answering to a judge.  Courts in Texas have repeatedly ruled in favor of students’ rights to wear religious attire.  For example, a federal court in Houston ruled against a school that punished Catholic students for wearing rosaries, and two others have prohibited schools from requiring American Indian boys to cut their hair to comply with a campus dress code.

The bottom line?  Schools cannot restrict this kind of religious observance by students; school dress codes need to accommodate students’ religious practice.

Coming up, one of the more hotly debated issues – school prayer.

3 thoughts on “Religion in Public Schools: Could school dress codes ban the hijab?”

  1. I am concerned that this appears to give preference to religious expression over non religious expression. Why should the freedom of expression be fully protected directly by the first amendment’s ban on any law “abridging the freedom of speech”

  2. Good point! Although this blog series focuses on the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty, students also have free speech rights. For more information on student’s rights at school generally, check out our Youth Rights Manual.

  3. I am not a lawyer nor a student of the constitution so I’ll admit to a degree of ignorance before making my comments. I don’t understand how praying in school differs from wearing a head dress? Why is it illegal or unconstitutional to ban all religious expressions and acts from all public schools? Why can’t a school enforce a dress code free of any religious connection: no crosses, no collars, no beads, no head wraps, no outward displays of prayer…nothing from everyone? If it’s important for parents to have thieir children’s religion acknowledged in school, then parents should enroll them in religious schools. Since we welcome so many religions into this country, like no other country in the world, schools should be neutral territory. How constitutional is it for us to acknowledge headwraps, which one religion uses as a gesture to their god, but others are denied prayer as a gesture to theirs?

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