The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, has rejected a student's request to wear a head covering on campus, reigniting debates over military-related organizations' relationship to religious freedom. The student, who wears a hijab due to her Muslim faith, will no longer enroll in the fall.
School administrators defended their decision on Tuesday, arguing that people of all faiths are welcome if they agree to abide by the college's rules.
"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 (alumni) as antithetical to that mission," The Washington Post reported. "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."
Critics questioned why The Citadel's uniform standards are harsher than the U.S. military's.
"There are Muslim women wearing hijab in our nation's military," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to the Post. "Whether it's hijab or beards or turbans, to cling to these outdated 'traditions' merely out of a sense of not wanting to change anything is, I think, untenable in this day and age and in our increasingly diverse society."
The U.S. military may be friendlier to head coverings than The Citadel, but it has also come under attack in recent months for its treatment of Sikh soldiers. Sikh males must not cut their hair or shave their beards, but members of the faith often have to in order to serve in the armed forces.
"Military grooming standards about beards have been inconsistently enforced over the past century," the Deseret News reported in December when a Sikh soldier was granted a religious accommodation to beard regulations.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations announced Tuesday that it is considering legal action against The Citadel in a press release.
"No student should be forced to choose between her faith and an education that can facilitate future service to her nation," it said.
Citadel President retired Lt. Gen John Rosa said he'll be disappointed if the Muslim student, who has not been named, does not enroll, noting that the college is ready to accommodate her faith in other ways.
"The Citadel will continue to provide for any cadet's spiritual needs when it can, such as providing special diets or time for prayer and driving cadets to their places of worship if they don't have a car," Rosa said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.
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