Orthodox Medics, ACLU Challenge Religious Discrimination at Pikesville Fire Company

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
November 10, 2009 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE – Three Orthodox medics assert in discrimination charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company (PVFC) has illegally barred them from riding on calls, in violation of their religious rights and in retaliation for their involvement in an Orthodox emergency response organization. The medics – Dr. Matthias Goldstein, Brennan Gross, and Avrohom Green – were told last winter that because of their refusal to shave their beards on religious grounds, they could not ride with the company as medics. This, the PVFC claimed, was because the beards might prevent them from wearing specialized safety masks that it hopes to purchase at some future date.

The medics are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Baltimore office of Hogan & Hartson, which is working pro bono.

“Not only does the fire company not yet equip any of its medics with these masks, but even if it did, such masks are not necessary for medics, because as a matter of policy, medics do not enter scenes where there is immediate danger to life and health,” said Dr. Matt Goldstein, an experienced emergency medical services instructor and paramedic who has worked with the Pikesville Company for 17 years. “Sadly, we cannot help but conclude that the no-beard rule is nothing more than a way to get rid of us – just a pretext for discrimination against Orthodox Jews.”

Dr. Goldstein and Mr. Gross also volunteer for an emergency response organization, called Hatzalah, which services the northwest Baltimore communities. Hatzalah – meaning “rescue” or “relief” in Hebrew – is comprised predominately of responders from the Orthodox Jewish community. Conflict arose last December, after PVFC officials learned of Dr. Goldstein’s involvement in Hatzalah, which he believes PVFC’s views as a competing organization. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Goldstein and Mr. Gross were told they could no longer respond to medic calls because of their beards. Efforts by the Orthodox medics since that time to mediate the dispute have thus far proven unsuccessful, leading to their EEOC filing last week, which protects their rights to pursue an action in court, should that ultimately be necessary.

“What a shame to have a service organization like this fighting religious turf wars, and using suspect safety concerns to turn away dedicated medics who are simply trying to serve their community in a way consistent with their religious beliefs,” said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon.

The masks at issue, called self-contained breathing apparatus or SCBA masks, are typically worn by firefighters but not medics. The existence of facial hair makes it difficult for SCBA masks to fit tightly, but alternative safety masks are available that can be used by individuals who wear beards. In addition, last year, in a similar case in the District of Columbia involving bearded Muslim firefighters, the federal appellate court for the District of Columbia ruled that the no beard rule was improper, and that the department should accommodate the firefighters’ sincerely held religious beliefs.

The Orthodox medics’ charges with the EEOC assert that the PVFC’s actions constitute religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lawyers In the case include: Gil Abramson, Jennifer Walker, and Allison Caplis of Hogan & Hartson, and Deborah Jeon of the ACLU of Maryland.

Bios of the Orthodox Medics:

Dr. Matthias Goldstein: Dr. Goldstein is Chief of Preventive Medicine and Wellness at Good Samaritan Hospital. He is a Physician Assistant and has a doctorate in Health Sciences. Goldstein has been employed as a paramedic with the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company since April 1993. He has also been an instructor for the PVFC as well as the Baltimore County Fire Department. Dr. Goldstein is a practicing Orthodox Jew and maintains his beard as part of his religious beliefs. Three years ago, Dr. Goldstein became involved in a new Orthodox emergency response organization, called Hatzalah, which is comprised predominately of responders from the Orthodox Jewish community. This organization was established to bridge the service gap in the city and county northwest corridor. Until recently, he was never told that his beard posed any problem or issue with regard to his ability to perform his job. He has repeatedly tried in good faith the resolve the dispute, and even offered information on an alternative mask that accommodates the needs of healthcare professionals who have beards. But thus far he has been unable to resolve the dispute. .

Brennan A. Gross: Mr. Gross was hired by the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company in November 2008 as an EMT. However, despite maintaining his beard during the interview process, agility test, and PVFC company vote, he was informed in February 2009 that he could not perform the job because of his beard. Mr. Gross is especially concerned that other PVFC personnel without beards have been permitted to ride as medics even though they do not wear masks. He now is a paramedic with Hatzalah and has not been allowed to ride with PVFC.

Avrohom Green: In January 2009, Mr. Green was denied acceptance as a medic with the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company because he maintains a beard. Mr. Green is a practicing Orthodox Jew and maintains his beard as part of his religious beliefs. He does not believe that the no-beard policy should also apply to medics, and in any case finds it troubling that although the same operating procedures have been in place since 2002, they are only now being interpreted to preclude service by bearded medics.

Go online to read the Paramedics EEOC charges: http://www.aclu-md.org

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