Justice Dept. settles suit over long beards with Philly school district
The district will have to revise a policy on appearance for school cops, and cases will be decided on an individual basis.
UNDER A SETTLEMENT reached with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Philadelphia School District will have to revise its attire-and-appearance policy for school police officers and provide training in matters related to people who have religious concerns.
The settlement follows a lawsuit filed in March against the school district by the Justice Department on behalf of school cop Siddiq Abu-Bakr, who is Muslim and who has a long beard for religious reasons.
The school district in 2010, under a new police chief, had implemented a policy that prohibited officers from having a beard longer than a quarter-inch. Under the settlement, filed in federal court yesterday, "we don't have to change that" policy, said Talib Ellison, an assistant general counsel for the school district.
The Justice Department's lawsuit alleged that the district violated Abu-Bakr's and other similar individuals' civil rights by not accommodating their religious beliefs.
Under the terms of the settlement, signed Friday, the school district has agreed to:
* Provide the Justice Department with a revised attire-and-appearance policy for school cops, which will "include a more detailed process by which current and prospective school police officers may request a religious accommodation."
* Notify current and prospective officers that their religious-accommodation requests will be considered on an individual basis. Before denying any requests, the district will explore alternatives with the affected person.
* Provide mandatory training on religious accommodation to all supervisors, managers, human-resources officials and others who may receive inquiries from officers regarding the revised policy.
The settlement agreement did not deal with Abu-Bakr's specific case because the school district had already entered into a confidential settlement with him.
Ellison said that before the settlement with Abu-Bakr, the district had already decided to allow him to keep his beard because he had been an employee for more than 25 years and had a beard since he started working for the district. For those reasons, "it would have been unfair" not to allow him to keep his beard, Ellison said.