US, siding with Muslim officer, sues school district over beard policy

The Philadelphia public school district’s policy on beards clashed with the religious beliefs of a school police officer. But overall in the US, more efforts are being made to accommodate the faithful in such situations.

J. David Ake/AP/File
The Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington is photographed early in the morning May 14, 2013. The Justice Department is suing the Philadelphia public school district, saying its grooming policy violates religious freedoms because it does not allow exemptions for those whose religious faith calls for different dress or grooming standards.

The US Department of Justice is suing the Philadelphia public school district, saying its grooming policy violates religious freedoms because it does not allow exemptions for those whose religious faith calls for different dress or grooming standards. The case, legal experts say, is part of a growing trend to accommodate the faithful in various settings.

At issue is the beard worn by Siddiq Abu-Bakr, a 27-year veteran of the district’s police force. An October 2010 grooming policy mandated that the facial hair of all security officers cannot be longer than one-quarter inch, making Mr. Abu-Bakr’s beard a violation. He is Muslim and has worn the beard the entire duration of his employment, Justice officials say.

“Individuals should not have to choose between maintaining their jobs and practicing their faith when accommodations can be reasonably made,” Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement Wednesday. “Federal law requires all employers, even those with grooming and uniform policies, to reasonably accommodate the religious observances and practices of their employees.”

Abu-Bakr sought an exemption, but was refused and subsequently reprimanded. He proceeded to file a grievance with the Philadelphia district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which then directed the case to the Department of Justice. The lawsuit charges that the district violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act and that the district refused to consider a “reasonable accommodation” for Abu-Bakr. Besides seeking monetary damages for Abu-Bakr, it also wants the district to revise its policy to prevent future discrimination.

Phone calls made Thursday to the school district seeking comment were not answered. The district is the eighth largest in the United States in terms of enrollment.

The government is intervening more in such cases because it is responding to the growing cultural awareness of discrimination, whether it relates to same-sex couples or the faithful, says Alan Brownstein, a law professor at the University of California at Davis and a constitutional law scholar.

There is “a renewed sensitivity concerning the burdening of religious individuals and groups that need accommodation” in the culture in general, Professor Brownstein says. “The thinking is there’s some really harsh accommodation problems out there, where preventing accommodations may seem to have serious consequences for a particular group of people.”

He adds, “These cases suggest to me people are recognizing we can separate the controversial cases, where accommodations really do impose serious burdens, from other cases where the bounds tilt quite favorably toward religious individuals,” he adds.

Although cases like the Philadelphia one have resulted in litigation, many issues have been resolved outside the courtroom. Many grooming and dress policies have been modified to allow for exemptions, primarily accommodating Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews.

In January, the Pentagon announced that beards, turbans, religious body art, and other manifestations of religious beliefs are allowed throughout the military. The revamped policy also allows for religious practices that are not connected to appearance.

In the correctional system, grooming polices are increasingly being challenged by both inmates and guards, who say policies requiring close-cropped beards are unconstitutional. US Justice Department officials successfully intervened in a 2011 California case involving a Sikh man who was refused a job in the state prison system because he would not shave his beard for a gas-mask fit test. The Justice Department sued the state that same year when it required a Sikh prison inmate in San Luis Obispo to cut his beard.

Both cases led California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign legislation prohibiting workplace discrimination based on religious dress and facial hair, unless it can be shown to be an unreasonable burden.

There is not a federal standard on grooming policies in federal or state prisons, or governmental institutions. That may change when the US Supreme Court hears arguments in a case involving a Muslim inmate in Arkansas who is challenging the state prison’s grooming policy. The case is set to be heard in the high court’s session that starts this fall. Already, the court has said the inmate can grow his beard while the case moves forward.

One high-profile dispute over a beard involved Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. His court-martial was delayed for months when he refused to shave his beard because of his professed Muslim faith. The beard violated military policy at the time. He was forcibly shaved last September following his conviction and sentencing.

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