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Muslim headscarf forces teen girl to bench in hoops game

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A teenage girl in Maryland was the victim of what some have called religious persecution in a youth basketball league earlier this week, when 12-year-old Maheem Haq, a Muslim, was forced to sit on the bench for the first half of a basketball game because of her headscarf.

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According to WJZ TV in Baltimore, Haq refused to take off her headscarf when a Hagerstown youth basketball league ref requested she do so. Her refusal led the ref to bar her from the game's first half.

The Baltimore Sun reported that she was allowed to play the second half wearing the hijab after a league administrator granted her a religious exemption.

"We were very upset when we heard about it," Connie Cline, the mother of one of Haq's teammates told WJZ. "She has been able to play the entire time and there's never been a problem."

[Rewind: During Ramadan, Muslim athlete must forgo water at workouts]

While the referee's decision has been widely condemned, the official was technically within his right, because the Mid-Maryland Girls Basketball league hadn't asked for a specific exemption to allow Haq to wear her religious wrap in games. The official in question, who has not been named, deemed that the scarf represented a safety hazard and banned Haq from the game on those grounds. It has already been announced that the referee will face no penalty for his decision to force Haq out of competition.

"The referee was within his rights. He was right to do what he did," Mid-Maryland Girls' Basketball's Daphnie Campbell told WJZ TV. "I will accept full responsibility for it. Being new, no, I didn't know anything about it. I didn't know I had to ask for permission, I didn't know a letter had to be on file. I didn't know anything of that."

Still, the decision was a surprising one, because it was the first time any referee had made a comment about Haq's headwrap. Haq had previously played basketball while wearing a headscarf for three years without incident.

[Related: Teen kicked off basketball team for hairstyle]

The television station reported that Haq's team actually offered to forfeit the game as a protest of the perceived discrimination against the Muslim player, but Haq's family refused to allow it. Instead, the teen's father said his daughter sitting out the half was a way to stand up for her religious beliefs and prove one can accommodate both Muslim traditions and modern American pastimes.

According to WJZ TV, the basketball league is now specifying in its bylaws that any exception to the uniform rules needs to be put in writing by the child’s parent.

[Related: Teens fight breast cancer bracelet ban]

Haq's parents filed that paperwork, so the 12-year-old can avoid future conflicts.

"I was upset a little bit because I really wanted to play and I enjoy playing basketball," Haq told WJZ. ...

"[Now] I feel really happy. I feel great."

While the incident may have led to some hurt feelings, Haq's coach said his player's insistence on maintaining her beliefs also helped teach a life lesson to her teammates.

"I do feel that some people were offended or emotions were hurt, and that's not what we're here for. We're here to learn sports and maybe some life skills along the way," said Coach Mark Hershner.
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