The federal government is suing the School District of Philadelphia on
behalf of a veteran security officer who says the district refuses to recognize his Islamic faith as justification for keeping an untrimmed beard in violation of personnel grooming policies.
Attorneys with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil complaint March 5 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf Siddiq Abu-Bakr, a school police officer who has been employed by the district since 1987 who claims the district considers him in violation of district policy because he refuses to trim his facial hair to a quarter-of-an-inch or less.
Abu-Bakr, who has worn the unkempt beard since his hiring, says he was told by a supervisor in the fall of 2010 that he was in violation of the grooming policy and that continued violation would result in “further disciplinary action,” according to the civil action.
In mid-November of that year, Abu-Bakr received a letter from Andrew Rosen, director of employee relations for the school district, that stated the district would not accommodate him because the “integrity of the policy” outweighed the man’s request for accommodation.
In his correspondence, Rosen acknowledged that he had received a letter from Abu-Bakr’s imam confirming that the officer’s religion prohibited beard trimming, according to the complaint.
Abu-Bakr continues to work for the district and remains in violation of the grooming policy, the suit states.
The federal government claims that other similarly situated school police officers have shaved or trimmed their beards to comply with the district’s grooming policy, in violation of their religious beliefs, observances and practices.
The Justice Department lawyers wrote that the school district’s policy of failing or refusing to accommodate those individuals who cannot trim their beards because of their sincerely held religious beliefs constitutes a pattern or practice of failure to accommodate religious beliefs, practices or observances in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act.
The complaint notes that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission previously investigated Abu-Bakr’s charge of discrimination and found reasonable cause to believe that he and others were being subjected to an unlawful failure to accommodate religious beliefs, practices or observances.
The government seeks to have a judge enjoin the school district from pursuing its policy of prohibiting beards longer than one-quarter-inch without exception for the religious beliefs of its school police officers.
The suit also seeks to have the courts require the defendant to adopt a grooming policy that complies with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Abu-Bakr also seeks to be compensated for any lost wages and pain and suffering experienced due to the defendant’s alleged actions.
The complaint was filed by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels and it was signed by Delora L. Kennebrew, the chief of the employment litigation section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
The federal case number is 2:14-cv-01334-MSG.