D.C. firefighters and paramedics sue city over policy banning beards Several D.C. firefighters and paramedics who wear a beard in accordance with their faith are appealing to a federal judge in a conflict over department grooming policy.
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D.C. firefighters and paramedics sue city over policy banning beards

Local firefighters are accusing the District of violating a federal court order that protects their right to wear a beard for religious purposes. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Multiple local firefighters and paramedics have accused D.C. of violating a longtime federal court decision that protects their rights to wear a beard for religious reasons. The emergency personnel have asked a federal judge to hold the city in contempt of court and to award them damages for the year-plus work they were forced to miss because they did not shave their beards.

The employees of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services say they were removed from field duty in March 2020, when they refused to comply with a new policy banning most types of facial hair, according to a Nov. 7 court motion. The policy was enacted at the start of the pandemic, when mask mandates were put in place for protection against COVID-19.

The employees — Steven Chasin, Calvert Potter, Jasper Sterling, and Hassan Umrani — each wear a beard in accordance with their Muslim or Jewish faith.

"This decision to ignore a binding court order is merely the latest step in the Department's multi-decade crusade to compel District firefighters and paramedics to conform to the Department's clean-shave preference, without regard for their religious liberties," the motion says. "The Department's conduct demonstrates a fundamental disregard both for Plaintiffs' rights under [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] and this Court's authority."

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WTOP first reported the news.

In 2001, some of those same employees filed a federal lawsuit against the District, accusing fire department's grooming policies of violating their religious liberties. One of the policies required members to shave their beards to 1/4 inch length and cut their hair to a length above the mid-point of their neck, according the lawsuit.

D.C. defended its grooming policies as a matter of public safety, according to court documents. The fire department argued members need a clean shaven face to masks for respiratory protection, among other reasons.

However, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ultimately sided with the employees, ordering the fire department not to impose a shaving requirement on the men who wear a beard for religious purposes. "The evidence shows that a beard has never interfered with the ability of a FEMS worker to do his duty, and is unlikely to do so," the 2007 decision said.

But in February 2020, the fire department department formally issued a new policy related to the use of personal protective equipment. According to the Nov. 7 motion, the new policy said: "Employees are not permitted to have: [1] Facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the face piece and the face; [2] Facial hair that interferes with the valve function; or [3] Any condition that interferes with the face-to-face piece seal or valve function."

When the plaintiffs refused to comply with the new policy and came to work with facial hair, the fire department allegedly prohibited them from assuming their regular duties and instead they were reassigned to logistical positions.

"The District of Columbia has already been ordered by the court to protect the religious liberty rights of paramedics and firefighters, and specifically, to allow our clients to keep their beards while on duty," said one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, Jordan Pratt of First Liberty Institute, in a statement to DCist/WAMU. "The District is plainly violating that court order. It's past time for the District to follow the law and the court."

The fire department deferred all inquiries to the Office of the Attorney General.

An OAG spokesperson said they have no comment "beyond that the District will oppose the motion for contempt." The deadline to respond is Dec. 16.

This story originally appeared on DCist.com.

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