A Muslim police officer who is Pakistani-American has filed a federal religious discrimination lawsuit against the New York Police Department, alleging he was wrongly suspended during Ramadan for refusal to shave his one-inch beard.
The 32-year-old officer says the no-beard policy, the subject of his class action employment lawsuit, is an infringement on the rights of some 100 Muslim police officers employed by the NYPD who are simply trying to exercise their freedom of religion without fear of retaliation or discrimination.
Plaintiff is a 10-year veteran on the force, and his primary duties involve handling disciplinary proceedings against fellow officers. He was reportedly suspended without pay. However, in an emergency hearing before a federal district court judge, the department was ordered to continue paying him for at least another three weeks until his next court date, at which time it will be decided whether he will be allowed to come back to work.
Workplace discrimination against Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent has always existed, but has increased in fervor with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Fear, mistrust and even hate have fueled much of this. Recently after the terrorist attack in San Bernadino, the Obama administration was compelled to issue a new warning against workplace religious discrimination against those who are or are perceived to be Muslim or Middle Eastern. An order issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in December 2015 outlines information and examples for employers on what may constitute discrimination and what steps employers can take to prevent and correct workplace discrimination.
For example, companies cannot discriminate against a worker by relegating her to a position with no customer interaction just because she wears a hijab, or religious head covering. If a client requests to work with someone who is not of Middle Eastern descent, the company can’t acquiesce that request without violating federal law. The client should be informed of this and, if he or she is unwilling to change is stance or practices, the employee in question should be moved to a post with equal work and pay and a replacement not given until the client changes its practices.
In another example, a company cannot require an individual of certain heritage or who follows a certain religion to undergo a more intense background screening than other applicants and the company can’t perform investigations or screenings that are discriminatory. It should be noted, however, that security clearance determinations for jobs relative to natural security may adhere to a process approved by federal statute or executive order, which is not subject to review under equal employment opportunity laws.
In the New York case, a spokesman for the department insists the facial hair policy is necessary for officer safety because it allows officers to avoid being overcome in situations that involve physical confrontations. Further, the policy adheres to federal guidelines for use of gas masks, which would be necessary for first responders in the event of a biological or chemical attack. Although plaintiff is not a patrol officer, the commissioner reported that because New York is a top terrorist target, that type of event would require all 36,000 police officers with the ability to mobilize and respond.
However, the Sunni Muslim asserts that he had been granted exception to the “no beard policy” when he was hired, and was even allowed to wear it longer. He even wore it at one inch (far in excess of the one millimeter the department allows) for his official identification.
It wasn’t until a certain captain informed him he wasn’t in compliance with department standards that he was ordered repeatedly to shave. Plaintiff refused and requested a reasonable accommodation in observance of his faith.
This case follows another of a Muslim officer who in 2013 resigned after 10 years rather than shave his beard.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 949.375.4734.
Muslim Officer Sues New York Police Dept. Over No-Beard Policy, June 22, 2016, By Ashley Southall, The New York Times
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