‘Separation of religion and state’ used on both sides of the debate on the lifting of the ban allowing Ilan Omar to wear hijab in Congress

Ilhan Omar has become the first person to wear a religious head covering in Congress at her swearing in ceremony. In November,Democrats announced a proposal, co-authored by Omar, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jim McGovern, to end a rule that bans headwear on the House Floor. It is a 181 year rule, which states that a House Member must be ‘uncovered’ in order to address the floor and cannot enter the House “with his head covered”. The ban has since been lifted. Omar has been unapologetic about intending to wear her headscarf in Congress when she tweeted support for the proposal in November:

“Noone puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice—one protected by the first amendment.   And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.”

Responses to the tweet have been mixed but mostly supportive. Some of the criticisms have suggested that there has been special treatment by the American political system because she is Muslim, suggesting that the same leniency would not be shown if it was a “Christian-themed hat”, and suggesting that allowing religious symbolism in the form of Omar’s headscarf has negative implications for the separation of religion and state. The idea that the separation of religion and state is being attacking through the overturning of this rule has also been picked up by conservative outlets, with theamericanthinker.com asking if the “the House, ’til now a bastion against the intersectionality of church and state, [has] wigged out, submitting to religion?” and pointing out that Congress has already had a number of different of ethnic and religious members, including two Muslim representatives, for whom the ban was not questioned [However both Muslims were male].

However other commentators have also used the ‘separation of religion and state’ argument to support the lifting the ban. In the nation.com, it is argued that the lifting of the ban and allowing the wearing of the hijab amounts to a rejection of religious tests for official holders, stipulated in the US constitution. Article VI, Clause 3 states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”] , and is thus “a necessary expression of the separation of church and state”. Other supporters on twitter also argue that times have changed since when the law was enacted and the allowing of religious symbols is in keeping with modern America. @row_ie_argument tweeted: ‘the symbolism of the hat rule belongs to a different era. [Ilhan Omar] belongs in the House with her hijab on. Orthodox Jews belong with kippot and Sikhs with turbans. Welcome to America’.

The topic has also been picked up specifically by media outlets by Muslim women. Haute Hijab also makes the link between the ban and constitutional rights, asking, “What reason could there be to ban any type of headcovering, be it a headscarf, a kippah or anything, especially in a country where the freedom of religion remains an enshrined principle and constitutional amendment?” However, the author also expresses frustration that the hijab once again takes centre stage, “Why is the focus, once again, on what a woman wants to wear instead of what she is saying or how she is voting?”. In MuslimGirl.net, the move is seen as a welcome departure to the current trend of islamophobic rhetoric and legislation, and increasing restrictions of the clothing of Muslim women, in the form of bans on face veils and head coverings, particularly in Europe. The visibility of an ‘openly-Muslim individuals in positions of leadership’ is also seen as defiance against Islamophobia; “We’re not going away nor will we be silenced”.

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