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DC firefighters sue DC over no-beards policy

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DC firefighters have asked a judge to hold the district in contempt of court over a policy that bans beards, resurrecting a battle waged over facial hair decades ago.

In a motion filed this month in federal court in Washington, firefighters say they were removed from their field duties and reassigned to lesser roles and received less compensation because they refused to shaving after the DC Fire and EMS Department (DC FEMS) released a policy in 2020 prohibiting most types of facial hair.

Steven Chasin, Calvert Potter, Jasper Sterling and Hassan Umrani each sport a beard “in accordance with the tenets of his Muslim or Jewish faith”, which was protected by a permanent injunction the men won against the district some 15 years ago under of religious freedom. Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), documents filed by their lawyers. The department’s latest policy illegally ignored the court order that allows them to keep their facial hair as an expression of religious beliefs, firefighters say.

“There really is no excuse,” said Jordan Pratt, senior counsel for the First Liberty Institute, in an interview. “They [D.C. FEMS] decided to be their own federal judge and violate the federal court order. This violation has harmed our customers for a year and a half.

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A DC FEMS spokesperson directed all inquiries to the DC Attorney General’s Office, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Many fire departments that ban employee facial hair say beards prevent masks from creating a good seal and reduce their effectiveness.

In 2007, the district worked to maintain its grooming policy in support of shaving, saying it was in the interest of safety, according to court documents filed by the DC attorney general’s office.

“The District contends that it is unsafe to wear a form-fitting mask with facial hair at the point of sealing, whether the mask is used in a positive or negative configuration,” the District argued in a motion.

But in 2007, US District Court Judge James Robertson sided with firefighters and concluded that outside of a “catastrophic scenario”, “evidence shows that a beard has never interfered with the ability of a FEMS worker to do their duty,” according to a court brief.

In the department’s new policy, issued in February 2020, employees were prohibited from having “facial hair that is between the facepiece sealing surface and the face”, “facial hair that interfere with valve function” or “any condition that interferes with face-to-face piece seal or valve function,” according to the court’s motion. The language of the policy reflects policy that DC FEMS has been under standing orders not to enforce, using the same security interests as before, Pratt said.

The policy “intends to protect and enhance the safety of all members and thereby support our ability to provide effective fire and emergency medical services to residents and visitors to the District of Columbia,” according to a DC FEMS general order cited in the motion. .

Each complainant informed their supervisor of the policy violating the federal court order, but were still reassigned from field duty in March 2020, Pratt said.

The application was originally scheduled for April 2020, but was moved forward by a special order issued by the department, which stated that the spread of covid-19 would increase the use of “N-95 masks and air-purifying respirators” and that “the presence of facial hair interferes with the seal of the mask,” according to the motion. Politics in DC came in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, but firefighters say the district planned to reinstate the beard ban ahead of the covid emergency.

Firefighters file complaint over hair policy

Reassignments to logistics positions caused firefighters to lose opportunities to earn overtime and paid time off, which was less than the total salary they would have received had they remained on duty in the field, the plaintiffs claimed .

Potter and his family “experienced increased psychological stress and frustration” due to their reduced income, and Umrani was “unable to participate in specific vocational training activities” and “was not allowed to apply for a promotion” at his fire station because he was not in the field, according to their court documents. Sterling said he had been forced “to use his time off to go to medical appointments” and could no longer take his son to school on days off because the new assignment had changed his schedule. Chasin also had to use the time off for medical appointments, according to the motion.

“It was only after we got involved and sent a letter saying, ‘Well, you can’t just unilaterally violate federal injunctions. It was only then that they reinstated them on the ground, but so far they have simply been unwilling to adequately compensate our customers for the harm caused by their violation,” Pratt said.

Potter and Sterling were reinstated to the field in October 2021, and Umrani was in December 2021. Chasin was transferred to an administrative position in March 2021 at his option, according to the motion.

The latest fight over the department’s grooming policies, previously reported by WTOP, reflects legal wrangling that goes back decades. In 2001, firefighters sued DC FEMS for violating their religious freedoms by forcing them to cut their hair or shave their beards, and won. The department had argued that the policy was being enforced “to increase discipline, uniformity, safety, and esprit de corps throughout this department,” according to a Washington Post report at the time.

The district has the opportunity to respond to the motion by explaining why they should not be held in contempt of court. The lawyers are asking for compensatory remedies for the plaintiffs.

After years of back-and-forth over the beard policy, the plaintiffs are again asking that the standing court order be followed under RFRA and that firefighters practicing religious beliefs be protected, Pratt said.

“In a world without RFRA, minority religions would suffer the most,” Pratt said.

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