- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2001

Six D.C. firefighters yesterday filed a federal lawsuit against the fire department, seeking a court order that allows them to work with long hair and beards they wear for religious reasons, despite grooming policy prohibitions.
The American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area and a private law firm are suing the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department in U.S. District Court on behalf of the firefighters, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendments free exercise of religion clause.
The attorneys have filed a motion asking the court for a preliminary injunction to stop the departments ongoing disciplinary procedures against the firefighters.
One firefighter, Willie Gafney, has taken a biblical vow of the Nazarite, which prevents him from cutting his hair in the tradition of Sampson. Three firefighters — Calvert Potter, Tarick Ali and Shannon Lyons — are Muslims and wear beards in that religious tradition.
All four are on administrative leave and have been notified the department is seeking to fire them, said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the ACLU.
Firefighter Hassan Umrani, also a Muslim, cut his beard but remains on administrative leave because he still wears a kufi, or skullcap. Firefighter Robert Ellerbe is a Rastafarian, which requires him to let his hair grow. He has complied but also is a party to the suit.
"These firefighters religious beliefs do not include suicide," Mr. Spitzer said. "They are not putting their religion ahead of their own lives and the safety of others."
Chief Ronnie Few said he began enforcing the grooming policy, which has been on the books since 1997, earlier this year to promote safety and professionalism.
The policy states beards must be one-quarter of an inch or less, and hair must be worn above the collar for men and women. Longer hair can be pinned up while on duty, but it cannot interfere with firefighting equipment, such as helmets or masks.
"This is and will forever be a safety issue," the chief said in a written statement yesterday. "I will not be the one to have to address the family of a fallen firefighter/EMS worker, knowing there was something I could have done to avoid a tragedy — and did nothing."
Chief Few said hair and beards that violate the policy make it difficult for a firefighter to achieve a proper seal on a helmet and mask. Firefighters in the lawsuit dispute that claim and demonstrated their capability of using the equipment in front of reporters.
Department officials have been unable to point to any incidents in the past several years in which a D.C. firefighter was injured because of long hair or a beard.
The D.C. firefighters union supports the lawsuit, and yesterday its president questioned the standards Chief Few is enforcing.
"The key question is whether or not a firefighters hair (or any other physical feature) interferes with his or her ability to wear the safety gear properly," Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 36, said in a statement. "That should be determined through an objective test, not the fire chiefs subjective opinions."
The ACLU also has filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights, citing a D.C. law that prohibits discrimination based on physical appearance. That complaint could take up to a year to process because of a backlog, Mr. Spitzer said.

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