A federal appeals court has upheld the Philadelphia Police Department's policy that forbids officers to wear Muslim head scarves on the job.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruling, issued Tuesday, affirmed a lower court's ruling in a 2005 lawsuit filed by Officer Kimberlie Webb of the 35th Police District. Webb, who became a Sunni Muslim two years after joining the force in 1995, contended that the ban on the scarves, known as hijabs, violated her civil rights.
In 2007, a federal judge ruled in the city's favor, and the Third Circuit said accommodating Webb would severely damage the department's appearance of "religious neutrality."
Webb said yesterday that she was disappointed, adding that many Muslims believe it is an obligation to wear head scarves. "It is a show of modesty," she said. "It is [Allah's] command."
She referred additional questions to her lawyers, Jeffrey M. Pollock, a partner with Fox Rothschild L.L.P., and Seval Yildirim, a professor at the Whittier Law School in California.
In an interview yesterday, Pollock said he was disappointed that the Third Circuit declined to consider constitutional questions that had not been raised at trial.
"We argued that we've seen ashes on Ash Wednesday and palms in cars around Palm Sunday," he said. "Why is it such a big deal . . . to wear a Muslim head scarf?"
Pollock said he was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but called it "a long shot."
He said he found the department's position ironic in that the policy had become an issue under then-Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, a Muslim, and that Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey had "reached out" to religious communities when he led the Police Department in Washington.
Reached late yesterday, Ramsey said that although he did not have all the specifics on the suit, he agreed with the court.
"We have to be careful that the uniform be neutral. The department serves a diverse community," Ramsey said. "We cannot have a situation where someone feels intimidated, or that they're not getting good service, because of a difference in religious beliefs.
"Some allowances we make, but we have to be careful about outward appearances."
Webb's scarf, a "breakaway hijab," is secured with Velcro so it does not put the officer in jeopardy, Pollock said. "It would only show on the back of the neck, and the rest is under her uniform."
Imam Amin Nathari, a representative of the Islamic-American Movement, also expressed frustration with the decision.
"I think it is a travesty," Nathari said. "It shows how much farther we have to go in this country in religious tolerance."