The Justice Department filed a complaint against the Muskogee Public School District, saying officials were wrong to suspend an 11-year-old Muslim girl for refusing to remove her head scarf.
"No student should be forced to choose between following her faith and enjoying the benefits of a public education," Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta said Tuesday. "Religious discrimination has no place in American schools."
The complaint seeks to force the school to change its dress code policy to "ensure there is no discrimination on the basis of religion."
School officials twice suspended sixth-grader Nashala Hearn in October for wearing a head scarf they said violated a dress code prohibiting head coverings, including hats. The child wears the head scarf, or hijab, as part of her observance of the Muslim religion.
Hearn returned to school Oct. 15, and was allowed to wear the head scarf pending a district review of its policies.
"We believe we're interpreting it right and apparently the federal government says different," Muskogee schools Superintendent Eldon Gleichman said. "I guess we'll let a judge determine it."
The complaint alleges the school district violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution by applying dress codes in an inconsistent and discriminatory manner.
The girl's family has sued the school district for $80,000, claiming the dress code discriminates unjustly against religious clothing. The Justice Department also filed a request Tuesday to intervene in that lawsuit. Trial is set for Sept. 7.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has urged Muslims and Arab-Americans to report instances of discrimination and hate crimes and pledged they will be fully investigated.
Through March 2, the Justice Department has investigated 549 alleged "backlash" crimes since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and held more than 250 town meetings with Arab-Americans, Muslims and other affected communities.