On Tuesday afternoon (09.26.17), our District’s 9th grade boys soccer team played an away match against Conestoga High School. One of our students on this team wears religious headwear in observation of his Sikh faith.
Early in the match, the PIAA referee assigned by PIAA to officiate the match informed our student that he was not permitted to wear his headwear while playing.
Our team’s soccer coach, Mike Snow, responded to the referee that our student wore his headwear for religious purposes.
Nevertheless, the referee indicated that our student needed to remove his headwear, and if he refused to do so, our student would not be permitted to play in the match.
Coach Snow vociferously objected to the referee’s ruling regarding our student’s headwear. Despite Coach Snow’s strenuous advocacy for the right of our student to appropriately wear religious headwear, the referee did not reverse his ruling. Therefore, our student was relegated to the sidelines for the match.
Coach Snow immediately telephoned Athletic Director Chris Gicking to alert him to this issue. AD Gicking immediately and strenuously advocated for our student, including with his contact at PIAA, in an effort to permit our student to play in this match. AD Gicking also communicated with the opposing team’s athletic director and his assistant, who joined with our District in strong agreement that our student should be permitted to play in the match while wearing his religious headwear. Unfortunately, AD Gicking’s efforts were to no avail, and therefore our student remained relegated to the sidelines for the remainder of the match.
The PIAA referee cited a 2017-2018 NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) Soccer Rule 4(2), which states in relevant part that “hats, caps and visors” are "illegal equipment." While this NFHS rule provides an explicit exemption for “religious medals,” it does not provide such an exemption for religious headwear. Nor does this Rule specify any process for requesting a waiver.
Adding to Coach Snow’s and AD Gicking’s frustration at this referee’s ruling was their knowledge that a recently-graduated District student had worn similar headwear while playing soccer for our District in PIAA-sanctioned matches for all four years of high school.
Continuing to zealously advocate for our student’s right to appropriate religious expression, our District, working together with our Solicitor Mark A. Sereni, Esquire, investigated this issue and took immediate action to protect the Constitutional rights of our students and their families.
Although we have no reason to believe that the referee’s ruling was motivated by any anti-religious or other discriminatory animus, our District concluded that our student, Coach Snow and AD Gicking were clearly in the right. Our District then quickly communicated up-the-chain with PIAA. In response to our District’s advocacy for our student, the PIAA has granted our student a waiver for this school year to wear his religious headwear while playing in soccer matches.
In response, School Board President Kathy Chandless stated, “I am extremely proud of the efforts of our District personnel, which have ensured that our student will not miss another game. On behalf of the School Board, I want to thank everyone who supported our student’s right to religious expression, and thank the student’s family for entrusting the District to promptly right this wrong.”