The text came shortly after 1:30 p.m. on March 31, and Je'Nan Hayes, sitting in the middle of chemistry class, didn't know how to react.
It was only 28 days before that Hayes was sitting on the bench in Watkins Mill's state playoff game at Oxon Hill, wondering why she was the only player to not see the court. Now her coach, Donita Adams, sent her a screen shot of a letter from the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association: The rule that required a waiver for her hijab — and led a ref to bar her from playing in that game because Watkins Mill did not have one — had been changed. Players in Maryland no longer needed a state-approved waiver for religious garments.
“It was just an amazing feeling, and I was really excited,” said Hayes, a junior. “I almost burst into tears because I was so happy.”
The letter, written by MPSSAA executive director Andy Warner, now provides a blanket waiver for “head covering, wrap, or other required religious garment” that is not dangerous or likely to come off during play. The original rule required a waiver, which Watkins Mill was never alerted of while Hayes, who wears a hijab as part of her Muslim faith, played in the first 24 games of the season. The decision by the referee to disallow her from playing, a strict interpretation of a rarely enforced rule, was condemned by officials from MPSSAA and Prince George's County, where the game took place.
The rule appears in the National Federation of State High School Associations rule book and is regulated at the state level. That offered Maryland an opportunity to institute a statewide waiver for religious garments, and it was sent to officiating supervisors and athletic directors March 21. It became effective immediately.
“The officials made what we believe was an incorrect decision but decided that by the letter of the law as they understood it that she should not be allowed to play,” said Bill Reinhard, director of communications for the Maryland State Department of Education. “And we wanted to make sure that didn't happen again.”
The NFHS rule book disallows “decorations and headwear” that do not fit specific requirements, but an exception reads: “For religious reasons — In the event there is documented evidence provided to the state association that a participant may not expose his/her uncovered head, the state association may approve a covering or wrap which is not abrasive, hard or dangerous to any other player and which is attached in such a way it is highly unlikely it will come off during play.”
Theresia Wynns, director of the NFHS’s Officials Association, said the “documented evidence” provision is in place as a safety precaution. She added that it is also important for each state to be aware of any equipment or clothing that is not part of a standard uniform. Maryland used the language of the NFHS exception to craft its statewide waiver.
“It is discriminatory to make Muslim athletes take an extra step to play,” Zainab Chaudry, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said before the rule was changed. “The case of Je'Nan Hayes showed that it can keep athletes from playing, and that could spiral into kids of certain faiths not wanting to take part in sports. That is not okay.”
Hayes and her mother, Carlitta Foster-Hayes, have been lobbying for change and raising awareness since March 3. They hope more states follow Maryland, and Reinhard sees that as a very realistic possibility. Hayes has already spoken at a handful of events and has a full schedule in the coming weeks.
Next she wants to host basketball clinics and organize events for athletes who have had similar experiences. She considered Maryland's rule change a victory but not the end of her efforts to normalize hijabs in sports.
“I really need to figure out how I can spread my experience out more,” Hayes said. “I feel like there's something missing that I can be doing, and that's where I am going to take this moving forward.”