Jon Campisi Mar. 20, 2014, 8:01am


A Philadelphia Gas Works employee claims in a newly filed civil suit that

the utility demoted him after he refused to shave his beard due to his religious beliefs.

Karim Burke, a devout Muslim who for years has refrained from shaving his beard as mandated by what he calls his “deeply held religious beliefs,” filed suit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on March 19 over claims that PGW retaliated against him when he refused to get rid of his facial hair.

The plaintiff, who has worked for PGW since 2011, alleges that his beard was never a problem in the past – he has continued to wear his facial hair since his hiring, and even had a beard during his initial job interview – but it became an issue when his superiors informed him he would have to be able to fit on his face a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus in order to continue his current status at the agency.

The lawsuit says that despite the fact that there was no need for Burke to use a breathing mask in the course of his job duties, PGW refused to waive the requirement that he shave his beard as it had in the past.

The complaint also notes that there are other devices that can accommodate employees who have beards, devices that offer adequate protection.

“Despite the fact that other jobs of comparable status and pay for which [Burke] is qualified are available at PGW, PGW refused to transfer him to one of those positions,” the complaint reads. “Instead, PGW demoted Mr. Burke and assigned him to a different position at a substantial cut in salary.”

This governmental action, the suit states, violates the plaintiff’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.

The defendant, which is the natural gas utility for the City of Philadelphia, is municipally owned and operated.

A co-defendant named in the lawsuit is Raymond Snyder, the vice president of PGW.

Burke, who was hired as a process operator at PGW after he quit his prior job with the Philadelphia School District, claims that when he was told to report for a “fit test” in October 2011, shortly after his hiring, he advised management that he would not be able to shave due to his religious beliefs.

A supervisor, the suit states, informed Burke that he did not have to take a fit test because his facial hair would make it impossible to complete the test.

The following October, the plaintiff was again told he wouldn’t have to be fitted for a breathing mask.

In the fall of 2013, however, a PGW supervisor told Burke he would have to shave his beard so that a fit test could be conducted.

The plaintiff was further told that failure to do so would be grounds for termination.

Burke maintains he asked to be provided with a mask that doesn’t require the user to be clean-shaven, devices that do, in fact, exist, the complaint states.

Alternatively Burke asked that he be assigned to a position that does not require the use of the mask, one that would match his salary and benefits.

But the requests were rebuffed, the complaint states, and the plaintiff was instead removed from his position as a process operator and assigned to a new position as a mechanic’s helper, one that represented a substantial reduction in salary.

“The requirement that employees like Mr. Burke shave off their beards imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religious beliefs by members of particular religious groups, including Muslims like Mr. Burke as well as some Jews, Sihks and Amish, whose sincere and deeply felt religious beliefs bar shaving,” the complaint states.

Burke seeks a declaratory judgment that the PGW practices and policies alleged in the complaint are unconstitutional and violate both federal and Pennsylvania law.

He also seeks injunctive relief, as well as an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and costs, and other court relief.

The lawsuit was filed by Philadelphia civil rights attorney Paul Messing of the firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

 

The federal case number is 2:14-cv-01626-NS.

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