When the Rules Run Up Against Faith

Many area Muslim cross-country runners are forced to reconcile the commitment to their sport with the commitment to their faith during Ramadan.
By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Juashaunna Kelly, a Theodore Roosevelt High School senior who has the fastest mile and two-mile times of any girls' runner in the District this winter, was disqualified from Saturday's Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet after officials said her Muslim clothing violated national competition rules.

Kelly was wearing the same uniform she has worn for the past three seasons while running for Theodore Roosevelt's cross-country and track teams: a custom-made, one-piece blue and orange unitard that covers her head, arms, torso and legs. On top of the unitard, Kelly wore the same orange and blue T-shirt and shorts as her teammates.

The outfit allows her to compete while complying with her Muslim faith, which forbids displaying any skin other than her face and hands.

As one of the other heats was held, two meet officials signaled to Kelly and asked her about her uniform. Meet director Tom Rogers said Kelly's uniform violated rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which sanctioned the event, by not being "a single-solid color and unadorned, except for a single school name or insignia no more than 2 1/4 inches."

Rogers then told Kelly she was disqualified. Kelly dropped to her knees and began sobbing. Kelly's mother, Sarah, walked down from the bleachers at Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex in Landover and argued with Rogers, but left without coming to an agreement to console her daughter.

"I saw that this isn't getting anywhere, and I wanted to go see her," Sarah Kelly said.

Rogers said he made three public address announcements prior to Kelly's disqualification requesting that Roosevelt Coach Tony Bowden meet with him. Bowden said he didn't hear any announcements.

Kelly has worn the same uniform for three years without any questions, including the 800- and 1,600-meter races at last year's Montgomery Invitational, at which Rogers also was the director.

"She ran in the same exact meet last year," Sarah Kelly said. "There was nothing said. No one has ever said anything to her."

Rogers said: "We run over 2,000 athletes in this meet. Most likely an official missed her uniform [last year] and a call wasn't made."

Juashaunna Kelly, who last week was named the 2007 Gatorade girls' cross-country runner of the year in the District, had her uniform custom-made by a tailor in Apple Valley, Calif., two years ago.

"It's not special," Kelly said. "It doesn't make me perform better."

She said she has been questioned about her uniform before every meet in which she has competed, including Saturday's.

"It was the same as the other meets: They pulled me aside and asked me why am I wearing this," she said. "I said, 'It's because I'm a Muslim.' "

Rogers said he knew Kelly was wearing the uniform for religious reasons and that he offered her several options to conform to the rules of the meet while still respecting her faith, including placing a plain T-shirt over her unitard and then wearing her team uniform over it.

"Every sport has uniform rules. It has nothing to do with religious discrimination," Rogers said. "They were provided with several options that would have allowed her to run without taking off her head covering."

Sarah Kelly said that was not the case. She said meet referees made several demands of her daughter before Rogers made his decision.

"First, they said she had to take her hood off," Sarah Kelly said. "Then, they said she can't have anything with logos displayed. Then, they said she had to turn it inside out. When I told them that there weren't any logos on it, they said she had to put a plain white T-shirt on over it."

Bowden said: "It never started off about color [of her uniform]. It started with her head wear.

"It wasn't a problem last year, and it's a problem this year? Make me understand why."

Perhaps the most prominent case in the United States of an athlete competing in Muslim attire occurred in 2004 at the University of South Florida. Women's basketball player Andrea Armstrong said she was asked by her coach to not wear her Muslim head scarf, long sleeves and long pants on the court. The school said it would appeal to the NCAA for a uniform waiver on her behalf, but Armstrong quit the team before a ruling was made.

Kelly, whose 1,600 time of 5 minutes 17.49 seconds and 3,200 time of 12:00.81 are the fastest of any District girl, was hoping to run a time fast enough at the Montgomery Invitational to qualify for the New Balance Collegiate Invitational in New York on Feb. 8-9. Bowden said Roosevelt has no other meets scheduled that would allow her to qualify for the event, which attracts dozens of college recruiters.

"What she needs to do is get some religious documentation saying it's part of her heritage and bring it with her to every meet," said Jim Vollmer, the commissioner of track for Montgomery County public schools.

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