The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has Republicans and the rest bracing for a redoubled onslaught upon the Trump administration on such issues as immigration and the broadening of investigations of the president with an eye toward impeachment.
Those things are expected. What was not expected, but is already one of the first consequences of the arrival of a group of young “progressives” in Congress, is a bill to repeal the ban on head coverings in the House.
Representative from Minnesota Ilhan Omar, one of two female Muslims who became the first to be elected to Congress this month, wears a hijab, a religious head covering, and wants to wear it in the chamber of the House as well. Chances are she will too. She has the co-sponsorship of California’s Nancy Pelosi, back for another stint as speaker of the House, and Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, the incoming rules chairman.
If they succeed, the lifting of the 181-year-old ban will permit not only the Muslim hijab, but the Jewish kippah as well, since the proposal explicitly states it is designed to “ensure religious expression,” by “clarify[ing] in the rules that religious headwear is permitted to be worn in the House chamber.”
As a point of religious freedom, it would appear that the matter is unarguable: To prevent a member of Congress from wearing an article of clothing of religious significance surely infringes on the First Amendment, which famously states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Indeed, it is a curiosity of American history that the ban was enacted in the first place.
Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and head of the International Law Department at Kohelet Forum, explains: “My understanding is that the original rule doesn’t have anything to do with religion; it’s more connected to what the manners were like in the 1830s when this rule was passed. It used to be considered impolite for people to wear hats indoors, and while that may still be the case, I don’t think a rule on etiquette applies to religious headgear,” he told the Media Line.
That is why the bill speaks of “clarify[ing] in the rules that religious headwear is permitted to be worn in the House chamber.” It implies that in the view of the authors, religious headwear was never prohibited; they are merely clarifying existing protocol.
Whether it breaks new ground or clarifies old rules, the result will be unmistakable: at least one Muslim in a hijab on the floor of the House.
At the same time, it must also be said that the broader agenda of Ilhan Omar and many of her Democratic colleagues are considerably less welcome. For one thing, the hat rule change is not an isolated measure. It comes as part of Democrats’ broader promise to “restore inclusion and diversity” in the House; they hope to create an independent office to promote diversity among House staff hires. Precisely what this will entail remains to be seen.
More importantly, Omar has come under fire in recent days for affirming her support for BDS, after she appeared to oppose it during the midterm campaign when speaking to a Jewish audience in a Minneapolis synagogue. She has denied any change in her views, insisting that she said the same thing both during and after the campaign, when she expressed reservations about the wisdom of boycotting Israel.
Whether she concealed her pro-BDS position to get elected or not, the fact remains that those are her views. Also among her views is that Israel is an “apartheid regime.” Like many others hostile to Israel, Omar contends that “drawing attention to the evil doings of the Israeli regime … is far from hating Jews.”
Not far enough though, to deter such notorious anti-Semites as Linda Sarsour from embracing her. In her defense of Omar’s BDS position, Sarsour played the vile dual allegiance card, referring to “folks who masquerade as progressives but always choose their allegiance to Israel over their commitment to democracy and free speech.” (She and Omar promote BDS on free speech grounds.)
Such views and such associations are good reason for us to be wary about the likes of Omar, even if we agree with her about religious head coverings.