Firefighters and paramedics from D.C. reignite a case against a facial hair policy that asks them to shave their beards. Even though there is a permanent injunction from 2007, the Columbia District asked FEMS (Firefighters and Emergency Medical Services) workers to follow the grooming policy over health concerns related to the covid emergency.
Yet, the findings around mask usage and their ability to protect against the virus have encouraged Steven Chasin, Calvert Potter, Jasper Sterling, and Hassan Umrani to reopen the case and demand compensation.
According to them, they were not allowed to return to field positions for 18 months, from March 2020 to the end of 2022. That prevented them from earning overtime and holiday pay.
Jordan Pratt, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, is the attorney representing the firefighters against the D.C. FEMS Department to get compensatory relief for the policy in 2020 prohibiting most kinds of facial hair.
Beards and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
Pratt is using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as the basis for requesting compensation for the time the firefighters were out of fieldwork. The RFRA exists to “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected”.
These firefighters and paramedics are either Muslims or Jews. Per their religious traditions, they should keep a beard or avoid using razors against their skin. Given their displacement from their regular job positions, Pratt argues that the facial hair policy is against the RFRA.
Like these firefighters, everyone who thinks their rights are being violated requires an attorney representing them during the litigation process. So far, Pratt has been doing his part to defend these workers against the facial hair policy.
- Muslims and facial hair: Muslims firmly believe that Allah created men with beards to distinguish them from women. For them, growing a beard is a sign of manhood, masculinity, and adulthood in men.
Muhammad al-Bukhari is one of the leading voices in hadith (transmitted reports attributed to what Muhammad said and did). Generally, it is commonly accepted that growing a beard is part of the Shari’ah law.
- Jews and facial hair: In the case of Jews, their apprehension to shave their beard comes mainly from Leviticus. But each community observes different and particular customs regarding beards.
Facial hair policy and the 2007 permanent injunction
This issue with facial hair is not new. It dates decades ago when the Potter vs District of Columbia case happened. At the time, D.C. asked firefighters to be clean-shaven to do their work.
The main argument was that beards would put firefighters’ life at risk because it would prevent the SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) from protecting the worker. Yet, D.C. was unable to offer enough proof of that allegation.
As the permanent injunction reads,
“The District of Columbia failed to satisfy its burden in opposing summary judgment by setting forth specific evidence showing a triable issue of fact as to the safety of the SCBA”.
At the time, the RFRA was also used to argue against the facial hair policy. As a result, the ban on beards didn’t see the light in the district court.
The quest for compensation
Chasin, Potter, Sterling, and Umrani have faced difficult times because of the facial hair policy.
Having your income reduced because of the inability to work as you intended can put you under stress and frustration. That was the case with Potter and his family. Chasin, Sterling, and Umrani also experienced something similar.
Now they are pushing a motion to get compensation for all they went through during these 18 months. The District is yet to respond to it. So, we will see soon how this situation ends up.
In 2007, a court decided District of Columbia had no strong arguments to force a facial hair policy that forced firefighters to go to work clean-shaven. That policy was rejected based on the RFRA and a demonstration that SCBA can protect firefighters despite having a beard.
However, in March 2020, D.C. enacted the facial hair policy arguing it won’t protect workers from the covid emergency. As all the events developed, Pratt, the lawyer representing the firefighters, introduced a motion to get them reinstated to their usual duties. He is now pushing for compensation for the time they were not allowed to work as expected.
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