After days of news media scrutiny  and a federal civil liberties complaint, a Massachusetts college backed down Thursday from its security policy that seemed to be the nation’s first ban on the veils worn by some Muslim women.
The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences announced that its identification rule requiring students to wear their ID cards and barring “any head covering that obscures a student’s face … either on campus or at clinical sites” -- which went into effect on January 1 -- has been amended to permit students to wear face-obscuring coverings for religious reasons.
“We will achieve our objective of campus security while allowing for a medical and/or religious accommodation," the college said in a statement. "As always, our primary concern is the security and safety of all our students, faculty and staff.”
The initial version of the policy included a medical exemption but not a religious one, which the Council for American-Islamic Relations had first called for in December after the college notified students of the rule. The college, said a CAIR spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper, did not take action on the request.
But, “based on a constructive dialogue with our extended community, and an intensive review of safety and security measures with advisors,” the college's statement said, administrators decided to adopt the exemption. The ban on face-obscuring head coverings remains intact for students without a medical or religious justification for a covering.
The college would not provide more information on how the decision was made, but it comes just a day after CAIR filed a third-party complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming the ban would violate the rights of faculty and staff. The complaint garnered even more news media attention for the case.
George E. Humphrey, vice president for college relations, notified Hooper of the exemption in an e-mail message sent late Friday afternoon. “We have reviewed our ID policy and made an accommodation for religious reasons,” Humphrey wrote. “Thank you for your input on this matter.”
Hooper did not indicate that he or anyone else from CAIR had had more discussions with the college leading up to the decision, simply saying that his group “congratulate[s] the college for ultimately doing what’s right and what’s mandated by law.”
He added: “I think that brings the matter to an end for us.”