Ajcongress Defends Right of Jewish Hoopsters to Wear Yarmulkas While Playing Interscholastic Games

Attorneys for the American Jewish Congress, Midwest Region, have filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Court to uphold the right of Orthodox Jewish basketball players to wear yarmulkes while playing interscholastic basketball.

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) appealed from the decision of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois which had ordered the IHSA to allow the basketball players to wear yarmulkes during interscholastic competition as required by the tenets of their religion, AJCongress attorneys Sylvia Neil, Shirley Dvorin and David Grossberg represent the Orthodox Jewish high school basketball players from the Hebrew Theological College Preparatory Division and Ida Crown Academy, their parents and the respective schools.

FACTS OF THE CASE

The case arose when the IHSA announced that it would not allow the wearing of securely fastened yarmulkes claiming it violated its rule prohibiting the wearing of headgear on the basketball court and posed a safety hazard. On behalf of plaintiff students, AJCongress filed suit as a class action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.

The District Court entered an emergency restraining order in February 1981, temporarily enjoining the defendants from prohibiting the plaintiff-students’ participation in the 1981 Illinois State Boys Basketball Regional Tournament while wearing yamulkes as required by their religion.

In November 1981, Judge Milton Shadur granted judgment for the plaintiffs and permanently enjoined the defendants from enforcing the rule. He found that the total absence of proof of “real (safety) hazards” failed to represent a compelling state interest to overcome the plainiffs’ First Amendment rights. The Court stated: “On the uncontrovetted facts the risks posed by yarmulkes and their appurtenances are totally speculative.”

AJCONGRESS BRIEF

In urging the Seventh Circuit to uphold the District Court’s ruling under the First and Fourteenth Amendment, the AJCongress brief states: “The state may justify an infringement on the fundamental right to freely exercise one’s religion only in the most limited circumstances … The state must show that it is the least restrictive means of achieving some compelling interest …Clearly, IHSA’s mere assert ion of safety based on hypothetical injury does not satisfy the compelling state interest required to overbalance plaintiff’s right to the free exercise of religion.”

The brief further argues: “By prohibiting the wearing of yarmulkes on the basketball court, the defendant IHSA unconstitutionally conditions the benefit of participation in interscholastic athletics on the plaintiff’s abandonment of their religious beliefs. This result is wholly in conflict with the protection accorded First Amendment rights … The conditioning of a public benefit on the abandonment of one’s religious beliefs is precisely what is forbidden by (The United States Supreme Court).”

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