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Student athletes could get religious accommodations under bill in the Utah legislature

Posted at 4:28 PM, Dec 19, 2022

HERRIMAN, Utah — Harkirath Sing Makhar and his brother, Harkaran, were getting ready to play a game of basketball when the referee approached them.

"The official came up and said we cannot play with our headgear," Harkirath said in an interview with FOX 13 News. "He said he’s never seen anything like it and we can’t play because he thought it was a towel."

As members of the Sikh religion, they were wearing turbans. Harkirath said their faith calls on them to not cut their hair and the turban protects it.

"I was confused at first and then I got really mad because we couldn’t start the game to play," said Harkaran.

Ben Gibbs, their coach at 801 Basketball, said the official threatened to make them forfeit the game.

"He said they have to forfeit the game because of the towels on their head and I'm like, first of all those are not towels. I was offended immediately. And I said they’re turbans, this is part of their religion and they’re going to play," he said.

Gibbs said it took several people to explain to the referee that the turbans were religious and his comments were offensive. The referee allowed the game to go forward, he said, but it left the club frustrated.

"The thing is, it was wrong whatever he did. He never apologized and I was really, really offended by the lack of knowledge in the current climate that we’re in," Gibbs told FOX 13 News. "You should be aware. For one, they’re kids. For two, it’s a basketball game."

Harkirath said the incident bothered them as they continued to play. He said in the more than 10 years he's been playing basketball, it has never happened before.

"It kind of disrupted our game," he said.

The incident is one of several that Rep. Candice Pierucci has heard of that has prompted her run a bill in the upcoming legislative session to force school districts and clubs that use any public school facilities to make religious accommodations for students. Violations could result in sanctions from the state.

"Clearly there are youth in our state who are experiencing barriers while trying to participate in sports and practice their religion," she said.

Rep. Pierucci, R-Herriman, hoped the issue had been dealt with after the Utah State Legislature passed a resolution earlier this year calling on school districts and athletic programs to make religious accommodations. But a resolution is often a statement by the legislature and is not legally binding.

Rep. Pierucci said that she has heard from Muslim girls who had been told to have their hijabs be made of the same material and colors as their athletic uniforms (which can get expensive). The lawmaker said one girl told her that when informed told her coach she would be wearing her hijab while she played, she was cut from the team the next day.

"Especially for a state that has a unique history founded on religious freedom and a population who fled religious persecution, we should be leading the nation in accommodating religious clothing, headwear and being an example of religious liberty," Rep. Pierucci said, referencing Utah's dominant Latter-day Saint faith.

Rep. Pierucci's resolution had bipartisan support on Utah's Capitol Hill and she expects widespread backing for the bill in the upcoming legislative session. The Utah High School Activities Association has not required waivers for religious accommodations for some time. The resolution enjoyed support from the Utah Muslim Civic League, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the state's largest teachers union, the Utah Education Association.

"As a community organization that does work in and between many different groups of faith in Utah, we recognize the intersectionality of this issue, as it implicates Muslims, Sikhs, Jewish people, and many others who have traditional headwear as part of their faith and religious practices," said Luna Banuri, the executive director of the Utah Muslim Civic League.

"This bill is a necessary step to protecting the rights and civil liberties of all these groups, especially in the context of school sports where children desire, above all, to feel integrated and like they belong in those spaces. We will continue to stand for efforts that forward interfaith and intersectional work, especially those that have clearly had an effect on our communities in Utah."

Gibbs said the bill would be good.

"It’s going to bring change and it’s going to bring awareness as well," he said.

Harkirath said if the bill passed it would be "awesome."

"I can actually go play without being worried about what religion I am, and being able to play like everybody else does," he said.