Mass. bar examiners to review religious wear rules

Test taker who had authorization interrupted due to her hijab

Iman Abdulrazzak, an observant Muslim, realized at the last minute that she needed special permission to wear her headscarf while taking the Massachusetts bar exam. She scrambled to fax her request for an exemption to the ban on hats and other headwear. She called the board’s office in Boston repeatedly to make sure it got through.

 

No one said anything about her headscarf when she arrived at Western New England University School of Law in Springfield to take the high-stakes test to become a lawyer Aug. 1. But halfway through the morning session, a proctor placed a note on her desk: “Head wear may not be worn during the examination without prior written approval. . . . Please remove your head wear and place it under your desk for the afternoon session.”

 

The problem was cleared up during the lunch break, when a proctor supervisor called the Board of Bar Examiners in Boston and confirmed that the office had approved Abdulrazzak’s request for a religious exemption. But Abdulrazzak said that the distraction and distress cost her about 10 minutes in the morning session and that she was not able to fully answer all of the essay questions.

 

Marilyn Wellington, executive director of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, called the mix-up “very unfortunate” and said the board takes responsibility for the mistake.

 

She said the board may consider revising its rule requiring prior authorization for religious headwear. The rule was established to prevent people from concealing notes or other information that could be used to cheat on the exam, she said, not to inhibit religious practice.

 

Normally, the Board of Bar Examiners notifies proctor supervisors of any test-takers who have obtained authorization to wear religious headgear during the exam.

 

Abdulrazzak said the proctor supervisor in her case seemed unable to find a notation of the authorization in her official binder. But she said the supervisor “was really nice.”

 

Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, said that as the nation becomes more diverse, requests for religious accommodation are becoming more common in schools, workplaces, and other arenas.

 

At least one other similar instance happened during the administration of the Massachusetts bar exam two years ago. Hania Masud, 28, a New York lawyer who took the bar in Boston in 2011, said she had not realized she needed a special exception to the no-hats rule in order to wear her hijab during the exam.