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Officials Say Sikh Student's Soccer Ban Was Miscommunication

A ninth grader in Pennsylvania wearing a Sikh head covering was barred from playing in a boys soccer match Tuesday.
Image: Honduras World Cup training
epa04243306 World Cup soccer balls line the field during a Honduras training session at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Florida USA, 06 June 2014. Honduras will play England in a friendly match 07 June 2014 in Miami. EPA/RHONA WISERHONA WISE / EPA

A ninth grader in Pennsylvania wearing a Sikh head covering was barred from playing in a boys soccer match Tuesday — a decision that the state’s athletic association said resulted from a miscommunication.

The unidentified student who attends Marple Newtown High School, not far from Philadelphia, was to participate in a match with his team against Conestoga High School, the law firm of DiOrio & Sereni, which represents the Marple Newtown School District, told NBC News in an email.

But the student, who had on religious headgear that he and his family said was worn in observance of his Sikh faith, was not permitted to compete, according to the school district.

Through its attorney, the school district said it had no information to believe the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) referee’s decision was motivated by religious discrimination.

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“Our District was surprised to learn that, according to a PIAA soccer referee’s decision, the PIAA apparently does not have a rule that reasonably accommodates the wearing of religious headwear by our student athletes who play soccer,” Mark A. Sereni, the school district’s solicitor, added in a statement.

“Our District is investigating this ruling and has advocated and will continue to advocate for the rights of our student athletes to appropriately wear religious headwear,” he said.

But Robert A. Lombardi, PIAA’s executive director, told NBC News that the incident was a miscommunication between the school and PIAA, not a rules issue.

He wrote in an email that the school had not properly requested a modification to a National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rule to allow headgear for religious purposes. The association approves them on a case-by-case basis, according to Lombardi.

He said it was corrected Thursday after the school submitted a request.

“Annually, all schools are informed of this information at the pre-season rules meetings held in their area,” Lombardi said. “The oversight by the school should not cause this overreaction.”

A voicemail left Thursday with the NFHS, which establishes rules for a number of sports, including soccer, was not immediately returned. On Twitter, the organization said it has "no ban on religious headwear in soccer."

Sports associations have gradually been relaxing regulations that once prohibited religious headgear from being worn during competitions.

The International Basketball Federation, known as FIBA, unanimously approved such a rule in May that is expected to take effect on Oct. 1. The change will affect players of a number of religious faiths, including Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs.

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The International Football Association Board, known as FIFA, also approved changes several years back that allow men and women to wear head coverings on the field.

And USA Boxing, the sport’s national governing body, was to lift its ban in June. The group had granted a waiver to a 16-year-old Muslim-American student to compete in a match in May wearing a hijab.

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