The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia, claiming a rule regulating the length of employees' beards constitutes religious discrimination.
According to the suit filed Wednesday, the district in October 2010 instituted a new grooming policy preventing school police officers and security guards from having beards longer than a quarter of an inch.
School police officer Siddiq Abu-Bakr maintained an untrimmed beard for the 27 years he worked at the district, the suit states. Abu-Bakr is a member of the Islamic faith, which he says requires that he not cut his beard.
When Abu-Bakr notified his supervisor his religious beliefs precluded him from complying with the new policy, he was allegedly issued a written reprimand cautioning that continued violation of the rule would result in "further disciplinary action."
Though, according to the suit, Abu-Bakr provided district officials with a letter from his imam confirming his religion prohibited him from trimming his beard, the district allegedly responded his request was outweighed by "the integrity of the policy."
The lawsuit claims the district failed to consider Abu-Bakr's request for "reasonable accommodation" to its grooming policy. The district instead denied the request without showing that complying would cause undue hardship, according to the suit.
Prosecutors said Abu-Bakr filed a religious discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which referred the matter to the Justice Department after determining there was reasonable cause to support the allegation.
Through the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the United States is seeking that the district be required to create new grooming policies that don't discriminate against employees. The lawsuit is also seeking monetary damages for Abu-Bakr and others who are similarly situated.
"No employee should be forced to violate his religious beliefs in order to earn a living," Spencer Lewis Jr., district director of the EEOC's Philadelphia District Office, said in a statement. "Modifying a dress or grooming code is a reasonable accommodation that enables employees to keep working without posing an undue hardship on the employer."
Representatives of the School District of Philadelphia could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.