- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

The D.C. government retreated yesterday and prolonged a legal fight that would require firefighters to shave their beards and cut their long hair despite the tenets of Muslim, Rastafarian and other religions.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson was expected to rule whether six firefighters would have to abide by a 5-year-old fire department grooming policy requiring beards no longer than inch and hair cut off above the collar.
But, D.C. Corporation Counsel Jonathan Potter detoured the hearing yesterday by withdrawing a motion to dismiss the firefighters' lawsuit. That means the case goes back to where it began in May when the firefighters filed the lawsuit. It could go to trial in a couple months.
"This is an unusual development," said Judge Robertson, who ruled in June that the firefighters be allowed to return to their duties because there was no evidence that long beards and hair were safety hazards.
"I'm only surprised that the District came to its senses before it lost," said Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the local American Civil Liberties Union.
"We will prevail that [long hair and beards] aren't safety risks," predicted Paul C. Vitrano, one of the attorneys for the firefighters. He said the firefighters have gone out on more than 1,000 calls, including the blasting of the Pentagon, in the last eight months without any injuries to themselves because of beards and long hair.
"They've clearly shown there was no danger here," said another attorney, Daniel Aronowitz, adding that a search of records shows there have never been any injuries or deaths to firefighters because of long hair and beards.
But other problems are surfacing. Mr. Vitrano said, "There are murmurs in the department" that some firefighters are being pulled out of special training because of braided hair.
Hassam A. Umrani, 44, a Muslim and a veteran member of the department's hazardous materials team, said he was given no reason why he would not be enrolled in advanced training next month.
"We're not quite comfortable," since enforcement of the grooming rule began in April, focusing attention on members of Muslim, Rastafarian and other religions, said Shannon Lyons, 27, a Muslim.
"Our religion is something we can't change," said Calvert Potter, also known as Abdul Majeed, 40. "We're a Muslim, and this is a requirement of our belief."
"We've been doing our job the way we are expected to do it," he said.
Fire Chief Ronnie Few, who was appointed in June 2000, decided a year ago to begin enforcing the grooming rule and had put the firefighters on administrative leave when they refused to abide by it.
The firefighters' lawsuit contends that the grooming rule violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion, and the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"It's rather unfortunate" that the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office changed tactics, said Mr. Vitrano, because more than six months legal research in preparation for yesterday's hearing was voided.
"The firefighters would like to get on with their lives," Mr. Aronowitz said. "They want to practice their religion and continue their firefighting."

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