Pennsylvania Judge Upholds Muslim Firefighter's Religious Liberty in ACLU Lawsuit

June 1, 2005 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA — In Pennsylvania’s first court interpretation of the state’s Religious Freedom Protection Act, a city judge has ruled that a devout Muslim firefighter who refuses to shave his beard on religious grounds cannot be fired while his legal case continues.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania brought the lawsuit on behalf of 25-year-old Curtis DeVeaux after he was suspended in February from his position in the Philadelphia Fire Department for refusing to shave his beard as required by city regulations.

“The court’s ruling means that Mr. DeVeaux doesn’t have to choose between his faith and his career,” said ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper. “Mr. DeVeaux does not want to risk his own safety or anyone else’s. With appropriate respiratory masks, he can be both a good firefighter and a good Muslim.”

According to DeVeaux, who has been a practicing Muslim for about five years, he ceased shaving in the summer of 2004 to grow his beard as a sign that he is a follower of Islam. DeVeaux made both formal and informal requests for a religious exemption from the Fire Department’s “no beard” policy in October and December of 2004. Instead of responding to his request for an exemption, the department suspended him from duty on February 2, 2005 and told him he would be fired if he did not shave within a month.

The Fire Department claimed that DeVeaux’s short beard would make it difficult for him to use the respirators issued to Philadelphia firefighters. However, the ACLU presented expert testimony that DeVeaux’s beard poses no greater danger than any other facial feature, and department officials conceded that features such as scars and high cheekbones can also interfere with the respirator’s seal. The ACLU said that it is common that firefighters with potentially risky facial features be permitted to serve so long as they can demonstrate through a respiratory fit test that they can use the equipment properly.

The ACLU argued that the Fire Department acted in violation of the Religious Freedom Protection Act, which states that a government agency “shall not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.” Under the Act, exemptions are available from government rules that significantly inhibit religious expression.

Last week, Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph Dych granted the ACLU’s petition for a preliminary injunction forcing the Fire Department to allow DeVeaux to return to his job without shaving his beard. The injunction bars the city from firing DeVeaux or reducing his pay while his case is still pending.

DeVeaux said he earned about $57,000 during his first year at the Fire Department, and supports a wife, daughter and younger brother.

“Permitting Mr. DeVeaux to take a respiratory fit test to demonstrate that he can serve safely will protect both the Fire Department’s interest in the safety of its firefighters and Mr. DeVeaux’s interests in following his religious beliefs,” Roper said.

Other ACLU affiliates have also brought lawsuits on behalf of individuals who have been targeted by government officials for adhering to the physical tenets of their faiths. In May, the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU of Northern California filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging restrictions on a Sikh man’s right to wear a religious head covering while awaiting a decision on his asylum application. In 2000, the ACLU of Maryland defended a Rastafarian police officer who was suspended from duty because he wears his hair in locks, as required by his faith.

For more information on the case of the Sikh asylum seeker, Harpal Singh Cheema, go to /node/9264.

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