SALT LAKE CITY — A resolution is advancing in the legislature calling on youth sports programs to be more accommodating to religious freedom.
The House Government Operations Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to support House Concurrent Resolution 16, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman. It calls for schools, city leagues and other youth sports programs to review their policies tied to athletic uniforms.
At the center of it all are issues some children participating in youth sports have been experiencing. Some are required to seek special permission to modify their uniform to match a religious or cultural style of dress, said Luna Banuri, the executive director of the Utah Muslim Civic League.
"There is a systemic issue that has been going on for years," she told FOX 13 News on Tuesday. "Just the fact that there are no Muslim girls in collegiate sports in the state of Utah, it’s indicative of a very large problem."
The league has collected accounts from students who have been required to get a "waiver form" or other special permission if they wanted to adjust their athletic uniforms to accommodate their religious beliefs, such as a girl who wears a hijab. On Tuesday, the committee was given a statement from a student athlete in Utah who was allowed to play basketball wearing a hijab — but she had to ensure that it matched the colors of her uniform. Other students, however, were allowed to dye their hair a number of colors without any issues.
The issue is not just limited to Muslim athletes. Children from Sikh, Jewish, and fundamentalist Mormon communities have also been known to modify athletic uniforms to conform to their beliefs which call for more modest styles of dress.
Rep. Pierucci noted that the issue came up in the Olympics, when some members of the women's beach volleyball team objected to their uniforms.
"The men aren’t required to play in bikinis," she told the committee.
Rep. Pierucci said Utah, given its heritage, ought to be more sensitive about religious freedom accommodations. In an interview with FOX 13 News she warned that some athletic programs may be tempting a First Amendment lawsuit with the requirements they make people go through to participate in sports with a religious accommodation.
"Based on some of the stories I’ve heard, I think people should definitely be careful about what they’re doing and also be more inclusive minded," she said.
Banuri said the extra steps also make it difficult for children to just play sports.
"Being new in the country, being a refugee... creating those comfort zones," she said. "If the school and the coaches and teachers don’t provide that security, that feeling to the parents, it is hard for us to let our kids be on their own."
The Utah High School Activities Association said it no longer requires any kind of waiver, but Rep. Pierucci said some city leagues and other youth groups still do. The resolution had support from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the Utah Education Association, the state's most powerful teachers union.
"Anything we can do to make sure that all students feel comfortable participating in these activities and sports is a great idea," the UEA's Chase Clyde said.
The resolution passed on the same day the Utah Muslim Civic League hosted "Muslim Day on the Hill," where community members met with lawmakers and representatives from the governor's office. Rep. Pierucci said she expected it would win widespread support in the House.
She also called her resolution "a warning shot." Rep. Pierucci said she planned a bill next year to enact the force of law.
"I think it’s helpful to give people the chance to course-correct based on good information," she said. "But for those who are stubborn and unwilling to change? We will put it in law."