Bearded Muslim firefighters win (temporary) victory against DC fire department

A federal judge yesterday ordered the D.C. fire department to allow three bearded Muslim firefighters to serve on full duty until Aug. 1, when he expects to decide whether the safety issues outweigh the men’s claims that shaving would violate their religious rights.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson told an attorney for the city and an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union that he would decide the case after a one-day hearing Aug. 1 that will examine whether facial hair puts firefighters at risk. The case was first filed in 2001.

“This is definitely a victory, even though it is temporary,” said plaintiff Hassan A. Umrani, a city firefighter who has worn a full beard since his first day on the job 16 years ago.

Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson last month ordered that all firefighters be cleanshaven so that they could be tested to determine whether their protective masks properly protect their faces.

Arthur Spitzer, an attorney for the D.C. chapter of the ACLU, said the order violated a preliminary injunction issued in a 2001 case in which six firefighters challenged the department on the point the policy violated their religious freedom.

The case was never settled, and the preliminary injunction remains in place.

Washington Times, 14 June 2005