WASHINGTON – A newly diverse House of Representatives has passed a rule that, for the first time in 181 years, allows head coverings to be worn on the House floor for religious reasons.
The rules package passed 234-197 Thursday and included a number of provisions, among them several seeking to “restore inclusion and diversity.” It passed the same day the country’s first two female Muslim members of Congress took office: Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota lawmaker who wears a head covering, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Both women are Democrats.
Omar celebrated the change on Twitter:
“Congress voted to lift a 181 year ban on headwear to make the #116thCongress more inclusive for all. I thank my colleagues for welcoming me, and I look forward to the day we lift the Muslim ban separating families all over the U.S. from their loved ones.”
The ban on head coverings has been in place since 1837.
According to the web page of the House historian, the 1837 measure passed with weirdly little debate, considering efforts to keep heads bare had been going down in flames for years. Some opponents of the ban before 1837 argued that there was nowhere for men (no women in office then, obviously) to put their hats. Others said wearing hats showed connection to the British House of Commons, where lawmakers wore hats during debate to reflect their independence from the King of England.
“Regarding then this usage as merely ‘the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual’ freedom of this body from all executive control or interference, let us preserve it,” John Patton of Virginia argued on the floor of the House. “And whenever, if ever, our executive magistrates shall attempt to employ any improper influence on this body, let us be found with our hats on.”
House historians said that French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the general lack of decorum of the U.S. House in the early 1800s. “One is struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly,” de Tocqueville wrote. Members used chewing tobacco and spat, smoked cigars, carried weapons, swilled liquor and propped their feet on their desks.
This week, the argument in favor of lifting the ban was different. It was proposed last month by then-House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rules Committee ranking Democrat Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Omar, of Minnesota. It was proposed to accommodate Omar. The rule change reads:
“During the session of the House, a Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner may not wear nonreligious headdress or a hat or remain by the Clerk’s desk during the call of the roll or the counting of ballots. A person on the floor of the House may not smoke or use a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum.”
Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which represents interests of Orthodox Jews, said when the rule change was proposed this month that no Jewish House member had made the ban an issue in the past. However, he said there have been special House sessions when Jewish men wore head coverings — including when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed Congress, and Israeli officials including the ambassador wore yarmulkes — called “kippot” in Hebrew.
“The Orthodox Union has long supported laws and policies that foster the accommodation of religious practices in the workplace. Religious practices — such as wearing religious garb, whether a kippot or a hijab, should be accommodated in all workplaces — including in the halls of Congress,” he said.