Philly School District Sued for Beard-Length Rule

The Philadelphia School District is being sued for alleged religious discrimination over a rule that requires employees to keep their beards at a certain length.

The lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, claims that the school district discriminated against a school police officer by instituting a policy in October of 2010 that prevented school officers from having beards longer than one-quarter inch. Abu-Bakr, a school police officer since 1987, told district officials that the rule conflicted with his Islamic faith, which prevents him from cutting his beard. Abu-Bakr says he has had an untrimmed beard longer than one-quarter inch for the 27 years he has worked with the district.

According to the lawsuit, Abu-Bakr notified his supervisor that he could not comply with the new rule due to his religious beliefs. Justice Department officials say he was then issued a written reprimand for violating the policy.

The complaint accuses the district of failing to consider Abu-Bakr’s request for “reasonable accommodation” to its grooming policy.

“Individuals should not have to choose between maintaining their jobs and practicing their faith when accommodations can be reasonably made,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Jocelyn Samuels. “Federal law requires all employers, even those with grooming and uniform policies, to reasonably accommodate the religious observances and practices of their employees.”

Officials say Abu-Bakr filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC’s Philadelphia district office investigated the case and determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred. They then notified the Department of Justice.

“No employee should be forced to violate his religious beliefs in order to earn a living,” said District Director Spencer H. Lewis Jr. of the EEOC’s Philadelphia District Office. “Modifying a dress or grooming code is a reasonable accommodation that enables employees to keep working without posing an undue hardship on the employer.  We are pleased that the EEOC's collaboration with the Department of Justice protects public employees from religious discrimination.”

The lawsuit requires the district to “develop and implement new grooming policies that would prevent its employees from being discriminated against based upon religion.” It’s also calling for monetary damages for Abu-Bakr and other individuals in similar situations.

The school district has not yet responded to a request for comment from NBC10 in Philadelphia.

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