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House Democrats push rule change for hijab-wearing freshman

November 19, 2018 GMT

Capitol Hill lawmakers imposed a rule in the mid-1800s requiring members to remain “uncovered” while the House was in session, effectively barring members from wearing a hat in the august chamber.

Two centuries on, Democrats say the comportment rule poses a big problem for one of their new members, Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who will be the first member of Congress to wear a hijab a traditional covering worn in public by some Muslim women.

Incoming Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts is pushing to clarify the rule so that members can wear headscarves or other religious coverings.


He has the support of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is running for speaker and has touted the increasing diversity of a Democratic caucus that will retake the majority for the first time in eight years.

Ms. Omar, who won 78 percent of the vote on election night, is the first Somali American and first Muslim refuge to serve in Congress. She defended her choice of headwear on social media and alluded to a future fight, presumably against President Trump’s travel ban on persons from certain predominately Muslim countries.

“No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choiceone protected by the first amendment,” she tweeted.

“And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.”

The change is a particularly interesting part of a slew of proposals the House rules package, which the new Congress will vote on immediately upon convening in January. Other changes are dry and procedural, such as how long members should get a chance to review legislation before voting on it.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights, applauded the Democrats’ push on Monday.

“We support the effort to update this anachronistic policy and to bring the House of Representatives into conformity with the Constitution and its existing protection of religious freedom,” CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said. “Islamic head coverings, Sikh turbans, Jewish yarmulkes, and Mennonite bonnets are all expressions of religious belief and are therefore already protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”