ACLU of Arizona Files Lawsuit to Protect Religious Liberty of Former MCSO Officer

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
May 29, 2009 12:00 am

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PHOENIX, AZ – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona today filed a lawsuit on behalf of a former Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) detention officer who was demoted and eventually forced to leave for being a practicing Muslim.

“Sheriff Arpaio’s prejudices extend beyond the streets of Maricopa County and into the workplace,” said ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Dan Pochoda. “In this case he discriminated against a committed, qualified employee based simply on his religious beliefs in clear violation of both state and federal laws that safeguard religious expression.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 34-year-old Sinan Fazlovic, charges that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio violated his religious beliefs by forcing him to shave his beard in order to work as a detention officer. Fazlovic, who has worn a full beard in accordance with his Muslim faith for most of his adult life, accepted a job as an MSCO detention officer in May 2005, only after he was assured that he could keep his beard.

It wasn’t until an encounter with Sheriff Arpaio during detention officer training that things changed. Soon after he met Arpaio, Fazlovic was told by his superiors that he would have to shave his beard if he wanted to keep his job. Fazlovic explained he’d be unable to do so because he was a practicing Muslim and was hired with that understanding. Ultimately, MCSO re-assigned him to a clerical position and then slashed his pay 33% – a hardship that he endured for 37 months, despite having to support his wife and three children, ages 6, 2, and 9 months. Other non-Muslim employees deemed unsuited for detention officer work in the jails by MCSO were found comparable work and pay. Despite repeated requests and being qualified for other positions, the MCSO under the direction of Sheriff Arpaio failed to find such accommodation for Fazlovic as required by federal and state constitutional provisions and statutes.

“In the United States, no one should be denied the right to keep a job and support their families because of their religion,” said Fazlovic, who is originally from Bosnia and has been living in Phoenix for ten years.

“I came to this country with great hopes and dreams; convinced this is where you can practice your religion freely. Unfortunately, MCSO forced me to pick between my religion and my existence, which is my employment. This caused me and my family tremendous suffering,” added Fazlovic, who is working to receive his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from ASU and plans to become a probation officer upon graduating.

MCSO deputies later claimed Fazlovic could not perform his job duties as a detention officer because he couldn’t properly wear a special breathing mask during emergencies. However, in 1998 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – the main federal agency charged with the enforcement of safety and health in the workplace – found that persons with beards could meet the standards and that alternative masks were available for persons with beards. Fazlovic submitted numerous written requests to demonstrate this and for transfers to a detention position where there was little need for a mask, but all were denied. Because of the intolerable work conditions, loss of pay and failure of Sheriff Arpaio to protect his religious beliefs as required by law, Fazlovic had no choice but to resign.

This case is being brought under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Free Exercise Clause of the Arizona State Constitution, and the Arizona Free Exercise of Religion Act, which prohibit government authorities from unreasonably burdening an individual’s right to free expression of his or her religion. In addition, Fazlovic is arguing that MCSO violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating against him on the basis of religion and failing to accommodate his religious beliefs in the terms and conditions of his employment, and by punishing him for filing formal grievances against MCSO. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission previously found that that there was good cause for these complaints after hearing from both sides.

“There is simply no place for this type of religious intolerance in any workplace in Maricopa County,” said Daniel Bonnett, of the Phoenix law firm of Martin & Bonnett, who has agreed to volunteer as an attorney with the ACLU of Arizona in representing Fazlovic in this matter. “MCSO forced him to choose between his religion and his job without justification, causing him extreme humiliation and anguish. For Sinan, his beard is an integral part of his religious identity, just like a yarmulke is for Jewish men or a hijab is for Muslim women.”

Fazlovic seeks compensatory and punitive damages. In addition to Pochoda, he is represented by Daniel Bonnett and Theresa Seifert of the firm of Martin & Bonnett.

Sinan Fazlovic will be available between 10:30am and noon today at the ACLU office.

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