(CNN) — All she wanted to do was be a member of a team.
So for the first time this year, Je’Nan Hayes tried out for the girls’ varsity basketball team at her high school in Gaithersburg, Maryland. And she made the Watkins Mill High School squad.
Though she wasn’t a starter, Hayes played in all 24 games, including two postseason contests.
That playing streak ended when the referee for the regional final said she could not play if she wore a hijab.
On the sidelines
As a Muslim, Hayes wears a hijab every day, including while playing basketball.
The National Federation of State High School Associations’ rule book states that head decorations and headwear are prohibited. The rulebook says there is an exception on an individual basis for medical, cosmetic or religious reasons, but only if there is documented evidence provided to the state that the participant may not expose their head.
The state association must approve the wrap or covering as long it is not in danger of coming unattached during play.
At the regional final March 3 at Oxon Hill, the referee told Hayes’ coach before the contest that without that authorization, she could not play.
She sat through the whole game, cheering on her team. When everyone else went in as subs, she was disappointed, but only thought her coach forgot to put her in.
‘Some common sense missing’
It wasn’t until after her team lost 51-36 and the game was over that she learned the truth.
After the game, the coach pulled Hayes aside and told her she didn’t play because of the rule regarding her hijab.
“Once I found out I had mixed emotions — anger, sadness and disappointment — at the ref for making the call,” said Hayes.
School officials didn’t know before the game about the rule, Watkins Mill High School athletic director Reggie Spears said. Officials in Prince George’s County made the decision that Hayes needed a waiver, he said.
“We tried to get an exception at the game, but that didn’t happen and they stuck with their decision,” he said. “It was in poor judgment. Should there be a rule, absolutely? It is necessary because you can get some crazy requests to wear this or that — I understand why there is a rule. But I think there was some common sense missing here.”
She should have played, state says
Hayes’s hijab shouldn’t have kept her from playing, the state’s high school sports ruling body said after the fact.
“Unfortunately the officials made a strict interpretation of the National Federation of State High Schools playing rules for basketball instead of the spirit of the rule designed to ensure safety and competitive fairness,” spokesman Bill Reinhard said. “There should have been no denial of participation and we are committed to working with the school and the family to ensure this does not happen again.”
We want rule change, advocacy group says
Hayes and her family have teamed up with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group. The organization will hold a news conference Thursday to ask that the rule be changed to ensure this never happens to another student.
“We are working to change the rules, or at least make an addendum,” CAIR Outreach Manager Zainab Chaundry said.
Hayes said she plans to play basketball next season, and will continue to wear her hijab.
“I’m Muslim, I’m American. I was born here. I’ve been here all my life. I’m human and just like you I have feelings,” she said. “This is the way I choose to represent my faith and it isn’t because I’m being forced. I want to.”