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A professor at an evangelical college outside of Chicago has been suspended after wearing a headscarf. She is Christian, but put the headscarf on as a symbol of support to Muslims as they face increased hostility in the U.S. Odette Yousef of member station WBEZ in Chicago reports.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Wheaton College calls itself the Harvard of Christian schools. Its campus, for about 3,000 students, sits and hour west of Chicago, in the wealthy suburb of Wheaton. The small liberal arts colleges has placed itself at the center of big national debates before. Over the summer, it stopped offering health insurance plans to students because of objections to the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act. This new controversy involves a political science professor.
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LARYCIA HAWKINS: In the spirit of advent, my actions were motivated by a desire to live out my faith - period. That's what this is about.
YOUSEF: Larycia Hawkins started wearing the hijab last week as an act of embodied solidarity with Muslims, a way, she says, of expressing her Christian faith. But her views are now under scrutiny by college administrators who say the school takes no position on the headscarf, but it has concerns about Hawkins' Facebook posts about the relationship of Islam to Christianity, in particular one where she wrote, quote, "as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." Administrators say that conflicts with the school's statement of faith, which outlines the school's foundational theology. But Wheaton College senior Myra Hooks isn't buying that explanation.
MYRA HOOKS: Her goal was to extend love and support to Muslims in a current climate where they're facing Islamophobia, unfortunately at the hands of, often, Christians. And it's just wrong.
YOUSEF: Hooks also doesn't agree with the school's claim that the suspension is about theology. Students who've studied with Hawkins say she teaches lessons that are consistent with the school's beliefs. Hooks argues the suspension is about the optics of a professor taking such a public stance for Muslims.
HOOKS: I think it's fear. I think it's fear of backlash from people within the Wheaton community and the public - the conservative Christian public of how this will be perceived and how people will perceive the direction that Wheaton College is heading.
YOUSEF: The controversy couldn't have erupted at a more stressful time on campus. This was finals week. And even with the workload, Larycia Hawkins' supporters organized two days of sit-ins outside college president Philip Ryken's office and met with administrators. School officials did not agree to be interviewed. But some on campus argue the school did exactly the right thing. Junior Jillian Hedges says it's proper for administrators to hit the pause button until they truly understand professor Hawkins' views.
JILLIAN HEDGES: The way that it's coming across to people is a problem, especially since she represents the school and she represents the institution itself. And Christians believe in a Trinitarian God - one god, three persons - and Muslim's believe in one Allah. And it may not sound like a huge difference, but it really is, theologically. It's a really big difference.
YOUSEF: Hawkins has submitted a theological statement for administrators to review. But she says she regrets neither wearing the hijab nor her Facebook posts.
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HAWKINS: I won't look back. And I'm thankful for the ways I've learned a lot about my faith and about myself, about the various levels of support that I have.
YOUSEF: Hawkins remains on paid leave during the review. For NPR News, I'm Odette Yousef in Chicago.
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