Bar Exams, Religion, Screw-Ups

Massachusetts Bar Changes Rules After Ridiculous Mid-Exam Religious Dustup

The day after the July 2013 bar exam concluded nationwide, we broke the news about a young woman of Muslim faith who was taken to task by a proctor over her religious headwear, a hijab. The proctor didn’t approach the examinee before testing on the Massachusetts exam started, or even during the lunch break — instead, the proctor passed her a note during the morning session of the exam, instructing her to remove her headscarf (even though the examinee had already received approval to wear it).

To interrupt someone during the bar exam and break their concentration over something that could’ve been taken care of when testing was not in session is not only incredibly rude, but also incredibly stupid. This is a professional exam that will determine if and when a person will be able to start their legal career. Why do something that could put their chances of passing in jeopardy? On top of that, why do something that could make it look like this was religiously motivated? This was a bad move on many levels.

From the Council on American-Islamic Relations to legal academics to the internet at large, people were upset about the way that the incident unfolded. Now the state is doing something about it…

If you’ve forgotten, this is the note that was passed to the bar examine while testing was in session:

In mid-August, Marilyn Wellington, executive director of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, who earlier called this situation an “unfortunate miscommunication,” said the board may reconsider the rule requiring bar examinees to obtain written permission to wear religious headwear during the exam.

It looks like that reconsideration came very quickly, because today, we heard from the woman who received the note, and she had some good news to share with us. Her name is Iman Abdulrazzak, and she decided to shed her cloak of anonimity when speaking about this incident after a friend posted a screenshot of her Facebook page to Tumblr. (Take from that what you will about the state of privacy in this modern world of ours.) This is the text of an email we received from Abdulrazzak earlier this morning:

I wanted to thank you for reporting on what happened to me during the bar exam. You were the first to publicize the incident and I don’t think it would’ve spread as far and fast as it did if you hadn’t written about it. You helped bring about this change and many future lawyers will benefit because of what you’ve done. The Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners has formally apologized and sent me this notice that I have attached. Prior approval is no longer required for religious or medically necessary headgear. I wanted to make sure you had a copy of the notice.

Thank you for everything you’ve done.

Perhaps this rule change will inspire other state bars to institute similar policies. But if this incident hasn’t changed your mind as to the importance of accommodating test-takers’ religious practices during state exams, then you should at least consider this advice from Martha I. Hicks-Robinson, bar admissions administrator for the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners, on the proper enforcement of your archaic rules: “To interrupt someone in the middle of the exam — we absolutely wouldn’t do something like that.”

(The official notice concerning the new headwear rule for bar exams in Massachusetts is on the next page.)

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