Philadelphia Tells Muslim Police to Trim Beards or Lose Jobs
October 19 (Bloomberg) — Philadelphia police officer Kenneth Wallace, a nine-year veteran of the force, is serving his second month-long suspension for refusing to shave.
Wallace, a 31-year-old Muslim, has asked for an arbitration hearing to challenge the department’s 1/4-inch limit on the length of beards. Muslim city workers sued Philadelphia, the fifth-largest U.S. city, beginning in February to challenge grooming and dress codes they claim violate their rights to religious expression.
“The Philadelphia community has a very large and visible Islamic core,” said Craig Thorpe, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs. “It’s kind of an anomaly that the police department and the fire department seem to be out of step.”
Muslims account for about 2 percent of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million population, almost equal to the 2.4 percent, or 7 million, for the entire U.S. The city’s Muslim population is the 18th largest in the nation.
Muslim emergency workers have challenged grooming policies in cities including New York, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, saying the Koran and other religious teachings require the wearing of untrimmed beards or head coverings.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, who Islamic groups say is the only Muslim running a U.S. police department, softened decades-old rules in August 2003 to allow some beards. He has refused to budge on a requirement that whiskers be no more than a 1/4-inch long and neatly trimmed, said Corporal Jim Pauley, a department spokesman.
“You don’t wear religion on your face,” Johnson said in a Sept. 18 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s largest newspaper. “You wear it in your heart and mind.”
Two months earlier, Johnson told the paper that the police department was a “paramilitary organization” requiring neatness and uniformity. Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story. Pauley said the department doesn’t keep track of the religious beliefs of the 6,400-member force.
“Either it’s too long or not neat enough,” Wallace said of supervisors’ complaints. “I don’t like it, but it’s in God’s hands.”
Discrimination complaints from Muslim Americans rose 70 percent to 1,019 in 2003, the latest year available, with 234 in the workplace, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said last year. Complaints picked up after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings of four jetliners by 20 Muslim terrorists.
Johnson began allowing beards four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that two Muslim police officers in Newark, New Jersey, could keep theirs because of their religious significance.
`Remove the Scarf’
Women on the Philadelphia force are still barred from wearing the scarf known as khimar or hijab, which many Muslims believe is mandated by Allah to show their modesty. Kimberlie Webb, the 43-year-old Philadelphia police officer represented by Thorpe, is suing for the right to wear the khimar.
Webb became a Sunni Muslim two years after joining the Philadelphia force in 1995, according to her federal lawsuit. The department denied her requests to wear the khimar, made in 1998 and again in 2003, and threatened Webb with disciplinary action unless she removed the covering at work, the suit said.
“They gave her an ultimatum: Either remove the khimar or be fired,” said Thorpe, a practicing Muslim who sports a short beard. “As a single mother with five kids, she made the practical decision.”
Department officials said the scarf posed a safety risk because it could be grabbed by a suspect. Newspapers and Muslim Web sites reported on Webb’s complaints through 2003. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in her favor that November and urged the department to relax its rules.
“We’ve seen more cases involving employers, both in the private and public sector, who refuse to accommodate women who want to wear the hijab,” said Laila Al-Qatami, spokeswoman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League in Washington. “Employers just don’t get that the scarf is the equivalent of a yarmulke for a devout Jewish man.”
Philadelphia fire officials, too, cite safety to justify their department’s ban on beards. Curtis DeVeaux, a firefighter who was suspended without pay in February for refusing to shave, plans to appeal a Pennsylvania judge’s decision last month to uphold the rule.
“It’s really a shame there is so little understanding about religious freedom and why we protect it so carefully in this country,” said Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing DeVeaux.
Fire officials argued that DeVeaux’s beard might disrupt the seal on his respirator. DeVeaux, 25, said he converted to Islam in 2000 and shaved to join the department the following year. He sought an exemption from the rule last year after speaking to firefighters in Washington who wore beards and were using the same equipment.
“It’s the practice of Muslim men to grow their beards,” said DeVeaux, who now installs satellite-television dishes for a living. “I love the job, but I have to adhere to the rules of my beliefs.”
To contact the reporter on this story:
Sophia Pearson in Wilmington, Delaware Spearson3@bloomberg.net