The Citadel will not allow a Muslim student to wear a hijab, an exception she had requested to the required uniform to keep her head covered, in keeping with her faith.

The Citadel is considering a request from an admitted student that she be allowed to wear a hijab in keeping with her Muslim faith. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The family of the accepted student is now considering “all legal options,” according to an advocate authorized to speak for them.

The uniform is traditional, and central to the ideals of the nearly 175-year-old public military college in South Carolina, so the fact that it was considering an exception to it for an accepted student set off shock waves among alumni. The idea pleased some in the close-knit corps, who felt it could be an important symbol of religious freedom and inclusiveness. But it upset others who felt it would clash with the mission and ideals of the Citadel, where loyalty, teamwork and uniformity are paramount.

At the Citadel, students are expected to leave behind their individuality — and almost all of their possessions — and form opinions based on character rather than appearance. Allowing one student to wear something completely different struck many as antithetical to that mission. And some objected, as well, because exceptions have apparently not ever been made for other religions. Christian cadets have been told not to display crosses, for example.

That the exception was being considered at a time when the role of Islam in U.S. culture is so polarizing, when presidential candidates and national leaders are debating whether the fight against terrorists is not a fight against the Muslim faith, or whether the religion is fundamentally one of violence, made the issue particularly incendiary far beyond the Charleston, S.C., campus.

A statement from the college president, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, explained that the uniform is central to the leadership training at the college, as cadets give up their individuality to learn teamwork and allegiance to the corps, and its leaders concluded that they could not grant an exception to the required dress. Rosa emphasized their commitment to having a diverse and inclusive campus, and their recognition of the importance of cadets’ religious beliefs. There are several Muslim students enrolled.

(A spokeswoman for the Citadel, Kimberly Keelor, said that a former employee recalled a cadet being allowed to wear long pants rather than shorts for physical training, but they have not found records of that.)

The cadets’ commandant called the student Tuesday morning to inform her, according to Keelor. He also told her he hoped to see her on the grounds in August.

The student cried after the commandant told her, said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations who spoke with the family Tuesday morning. “She told the commandant it wasn’t fair that she has to choose between practicing her faith and going to the Citadel,” he said.

She had worked very hard and had been focused on going to the Citadel for a long time, Hooper said. “That’s why she was so heartbroken,” he said.

She will not attend, he said.

“A complete denial was very shocking,” he said. They had expected their request to be granted. “The father said, ‘We live in a land of laws. These outdated traditions violate that law’ ” that protects religious freedom, Hooper said.

“As far as legal action [is considered], all options are on the table,” he said.

Speaking for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Hooper said not granting religious accommodation was a bar to any practicing Muslim and was not acceptable at a public institution. “Obviously from CAIR’s perspective, as a civil-rights organization, we’re not going to drop this issue,” he said. “We’re going to view it as a continuation of the civil-rights struggles that allowed African Americans and women to have free entry and participation in these types of institutions nationwide.

“There are Muslim women wearing hijab in our nation’s military,” he said. “ … Whether it’s hijab or beards or turbans, to cling to these outdated ‘traditions’ merely out of a sense of not wanting to change anything is, I think, untenable in this day and age and in our increasingly diverse society.”

Asra Nomani, an author and co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, applauded the Citadel’s decision. “Women and girls, of course, should have a right to wear — or not wear — the headscarf in society, if they wish, but it is truly an insult to the struggle for secularism and civil rights in this country to conflate the headscarf with the struggle for religious and civil liberties in the United States,” she wrote in an email.

She believes the hijab is not required for Muslims, but is an interpretation by “a fundamentalist, puritanical, political Islam.” In her opinion, “Including the headscarf in the Citadel uniform would be equal to including the side curls, or payot, worn by some men and boys in Orthodox Judaism.”

In a statement, CAIR senior staff attorney William Burgess said, “The Citadel violated the student’s right to a religious accommodation under the First Amendment and the South Carolina Religious Freedom Act, which makes it illegal for a state institution to place a burden on a person’s ability to practice his or her faith without the most compelling justification.

“We believe the desire to maintain an outdated ‘tradition,’ which was the same argument used to initially deny admittance to African-Americans and women, does not justify violating a student’s constitutional rights. Our nation’s military currently accommodates religious attire in the form of headscarves, beards and turbans. The Citadel should offer the same accommodations.

“No student should be forced to choose between her faith and an education that can facilitate future service to her nation.”

Nick Pinelli, who just graduated and who set off a social media firestorm when he wrote that the college was considering the religious accommodation, said in a message Tuesday morning: “I believe a thoughtful decision was made by the Board of Visitors, the Commandant of Cadets, and the President. The decision was made after the most careful consideration by all involved and with an immense amount of concern for both equality and reason.

“The Citadel continues to create leaders who are sought after by employers across the state and nation, and this decision is one that focuses on both the importance of freedom, as well as the importance of the 174-year-strong system that has bettered thousands of lives and has created thousands of leaders in the public and private sectors.”

On Tuesday afternoon, he said the reaction he has heard from cadets and alumni has been very positive. He added that he hoped the student in question knew he didn’t mean to hurt her personally or change her goals when he objected to the idea of making an exception. “I really hope that she comes in the fall,” Pinelli said. “Anybody gets a lot out of it – anybody who wants to come gets a lot out of it.”

Keelor said it was a difficult decision. “Though the college heard from many alumni,” she wrote in an email, “the decision was based on the fact that the standardization of cadets in apparel, overall appearance, actions and privileges is essential to the learning goals and objectives of the college.”

Tatjana Christian, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army, said, “The Army has a process in place that allows soldiers to request an exception to policy based on their religious practices. Any request for an exception to this policy is considered on a case-by-case basis, considering impact on unit and individual readiness, unit cohesion, morale, discipline and health and safety of the force. We will continue to review the merits of each specific request for religious accommodation.”

Emily Kelley, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said in a statement: “The U.S. Military Academy values the diversity in the Corps of Cadets. Our Standards of Cadet Conduct and Appearance regulation allows for the wear of religious items that are not visible or apparent when in duty uniform, provided they do not interfere with the performance of the Soldier’s military duties, or interfere with the proper wearing of any authorized article of the uniform. Any requests for religious accommodation are thoughtfully and carefully considered on a case-by-case basis.” No cadet has requested an accommodation to wear a hijab.

The U.S. Naval Academy follows the regulations of the U.S. Navy, according to a spokesman. Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Navy, said in an email that they support to the maximum extent possible the free exercise of religion and consider unit cohesion, alternatives, and other issues as they take each request on a case-by-case basis. Since the Pentagon updated its policy on religious accommodation in 2014, the Navy has had about 30 requests for religious accommodation.

No sailors have been permitted to wear a hijab while on duty.

No woman cadet at the Virginia Military Institute has worn a hijab, said Col. Stewart D. MacInnis, a spokesman, and he is not aware of any request to do so.

Rosa, the Citadel president, issued a statement Tuesday morning:

An American Muslim student admitted to the Class of 2020 requested a religious accommodation to wear a head cover, called a hijab, with the standard uniform of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets. While we hope the student will enroll in the college this fall, the Commandant of Cadets, after considerable review, determined the uniform exception cannot be granted. Captain (Retired) Geno Paluso’s decision was made with my support and the support of The Citadel Board of Visitors.
As the Military College of South Carolina, The Citadel has relied upon a highly effective educational model requiring all cadets to adopt a common uniform. Uniformity is the cornerstone of this four-year leader development model. The standardization of cadets in apparel, overall appearance, actions and privileges is essential to the learning goals and objectives of the college. This process reflects an initial relinquishing of self during which cadets learn the value of teamwork to function as a single unit. Upon graduation, The Citadel’s graduates are prepared to enter a life committed to principled leadership in military service and civilian careers.
The Citadel recognizes the importance of a cadet’s spiritual and religious beliefs, providing services for specific needs whenever possible. For example, during the first week of school faith-based organizations on campus and from the community meet with freshmen cadets. Cadet religious officers arrange transportation to churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship for those without cars. Accommodations for prayer and dietary needs are common at the college.
The diversity of religions and cultural backgrounds represented in the Corps enriches the overall cadet experience and better prepares graduates to become principled leaders in all walks of life, underpinned by The Citadel’s core values of honor, duty and respect.

This post has been updated.