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House Lifts 181-Year-Old Ban for Ilhan Omar

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House of Representatives (Photo: Architect of the Capitol/PublicDomainFiles.com)
House of Representatives (Photo: Architect of the Capitol/PublicDomainFiles.com)

The House of Representatives just lifted a 181-year-old ban against wearing hats on the floor of the House. The ban was instituted in 1837 as a pushback against the British custom to wear hats in parliament.

That tradition will now be changed to allow newly-elected Ilhan Omar to wear a hijab when she assumes office as the Democratic representative from Minnesota and appears on the floor of Congress.

Sources in the Democratic party confirmed the ban will also be lifted to allow others with religious or medical considerations to wear headgear on the floor of the House.

Commenting on the new policy, Omar said, “There are those kinds of policies that oftentimes get created because people who have blind spots are in positions of influence and positions of power. I think it will be really exciting to see the stuff that we notice within the rules that don’t work for a modern-day America.”

Omar is correct in pointing to the lack of flexibility in rules – especially those made for arbitrary (or in this case contrary) purposes. Take the case of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, who has been undergoing chemotherapy since last September and has lost her hair. To exercise her right to vote and fulfill her duties as an elected representative, Coleman was forced to remove her hat, exposing her bald head on the floor of Congress.

Although Watson Coleman says she got used to it, the rule should have been changed long ago to accommodate circumstances clearly outside the intent of the law.

Omar said she is excited to see “the stuff within the rules that don’t work for a modern-day America” — and presumably change them.

However, she is wrong to call for a change in rules just because they don’t work for “modern-day America.”

In terms of this rule, there is a much more compelling reason to change it: The hat ban literally infringes on the Constitution itself, namely the seminal right laid down in the First Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion to all citizens.

Barring our elected representatives from exercising this basic right is illegal, not to mention hugely hypocritical.

Let’s not forget (as if we could) – the United States is not France. Our concept of religious freedom is not laïcité, which (ironically) elevates secularism to the status of a religious value. In France, religion is not just separate from the state but for all practical purposes forbidden to be expressed by the individuals representing the state — hence, the law passed by France this year which forbids lawmakers from wearing any kind of religious symbols or clothing, or the 2004 law passed which forbids wearing of any visible religious garb (including hijabs and Jewish skull caps) in public schools.

That is a far cry from the American concept of separation of religion and state, which allows the free expression of any religion.

Omar’s excitement to abolish rules that “don’t work for a modern-day America” would, by contrast, set a dangerous precedent, making Congress and other governmental institutions subject to the whims of whatever dogma is deemed politically correct at the time and by the ruling party.

By contrast, the Constitution gives us absolute values with which to legislate laws and set down rules.

The real question is, why did it take until now for Congress to change this illegal rule that was based on (let’s be honest) not much more than the cultural equivalent of a rebellious teenager trying to assert his independence from his parents?

Certainly orthodox Jews serving or working in Congress previously faced the uncomfortable dilemma of having to take off their head covering while on the floor of the House (which would not be a forbidden act) or not be present. This is not even to mention the uncomfortable position the ban put Watson Coleman in.

Perhaps no one ever asked that the rule be changed until now. Perhaps it took a Muslim woman who wears a hijab to push the issue and get Congress to alter the rule for everyone in a similar situation. That’s either the function of progress or political correctness. My guess is that it’s a fair amount of both.

 

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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