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A hijab with her uniform? Why Citadel tells prospective student, 'No' (+video)

The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., announced on Tuesday that it would stick with its 174-year-old dress code instead of allowing a prospective student to wear a hijab with her uniform. 

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    Cadets practice for their weekly parade at the Citadel.
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The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., announced on Tuesday its month-long pending decision on a prospective student's request to wear a hijab with her uniform. They denied her request, maintaining the same 174-year-old uniforms students have donned since the Citadel was founded.

"As the Military College of South Carolina, the Citadel has relied upon a highly effective educational model requiring all cadets adopt a common uniform," said Lt. Gen. John Rosa, the Citadel's president. "Uniformity is the cornerstone of this four-year leader development model." Lieutenant General Rosa added that he hopes the student (who has not been identified) will still attend the Citadel. While failing to make religious accommodations to the uniform, the Citadel would accommodate prayer and diet, and provide transportation to religious services, he said.

The Citadel's decision about the student's hijab and uniform is a cornerstone decision in an ongoing heated debate. While equality may be an underlying theme in the debate, how to achieve equality and what it means for different people is on shifting grounds. The US military has become more open to religious garb, but only on a case-by-case basis, which is questionable depending on who is asking for accommodations.

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"Equality means the same set of rules for everyone," cadet Nick Pinelli wrote on Facebook, "not different rules for different people. It means accepting everyone, and giving them the same tools to succeed as the rest." Mr. Pinelli said the religious exemption for the student's uniform would have been a "slippery slope" leading to "further disintegration of the system." "This girl should be welcomed to the Corps with open arms, as should any person of any religion, race, gender, or identity. That's equality. It's not equality to let one of those groups follow a different set of rules," he wrote.

Pinelli, who does not speak on behalf of the Citadel, incited a slew of responses – some agreeing with him, others opposing. One person wrote that since the rules weren't changed, the prospective student had to choose either between breaking the rules of her religion or the rules of the Citadel.

Simratpal Singh, a Sikh captain in the United States Army, however, is allowed to don a turban and beard for religious reasons. Mr. Singh does not believe that the military's discipline and safety standards rely on uniformity. He received religious exemption for his uniform in April, but also filed a federal complaint against the Defense Department on grounds of religious discrimination after he was put through helmet and gas mask testing that other soldiers don't have to go through.

"In the Army, people care how good you are at your job," Singh told The New York Times. "Are you a leader? Do you work hard? Then having a turban and a beard doesn't change anything."

Following Singh's suit, three other Sikhs were also granted religious accommodations. "If we want a modern progressive military that looks like America, we're going to have to come to terms with the fact that not all Americans look like," Maj. Kamal Kalsi, the first Sikh in a generation to whom the Army granted religious accommodations, told The Christian Science Monitor's Anna Mulrine.

While religious accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis, it seems that adults are given more leeway than students. For students at the Citadel, Rosa said in a statement that the process "reflects an initial relinquishing of self during which cadets learn the value of teamwork to function as a single unit."

Pinelli echoed the importance of students adhering to a system. "It's not about her or her religion. I have to put my cross under my shirt but I also have to put my dog tags under my shirt. It's not the cross that they care about," he said.

Nonetheless, the prospective student's family is considering legal recourse, according to Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He said the prospective student will not attend the Citadel unless the rules are changed.

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