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  • A Hairy Lawsuit: Freedom to Grow a Beard for Religious Reasons?

    From Abraham Lincoln to ZZ Top, there are already quite a number of notable beards. However, a newcomer may soon be entering this list: Siddiq Abu-Bakr.

    In October 2010, the Philadelphia School District (“District”) implemented a rule prohibiting school police officers and security guards from growing beards longer than a quarter of an inch. Siddiq Abu-Bakr, a District police officer who had an untrimmed beard during his entire 27-year tenure with the District, informed his supervisor that he could not comply with the beard-length rule due to religious beliefs. After not trimming his beard, Abu-Bakr was issued a written reprimand warning that his continued violation of the rule may result in further disciplinary action. Even after providing the District with a letter from his imam confirming that his Islamic faith prevented him from trimming his beard, the District allegedly stated that “the integrity of the policy” outweighs Abu-Bakr’s request. Abu-Bakr subsequently filed a claim of religious discrimination with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which, after finding reasonable cause that discrimination occurred, notified the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”).

    In March 2014, the DOJ filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the District alleging that the District discriminated against Abu-Bakr and failed to properly consider his request for a reasonable accommodation to its beard policy. According to Spencer H. Lewis, District Director of the EEOC’s Philadelphia office, “[m]odifying a dress or grooming code is a reasonable accommodation that enables employees to keep working without posing an undue hardship on the employer.” In addition to seeking monetary damages for Abu-Bakr and others similarly situated, the complaint demands that the District develop new grooming polices which do not discriminate against any employee’s religious beliefs.

    As evidenced by this lawsuit, school districts and employers may want to seek legal advice prior to implementing any new policies. If you or your company has any questions or concerns regarding employment or education related issues, please email Cynthia A. Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.

    Special thanks to Scott Brenner, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for his assistance with this post.