- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A federal judge yesterday ordered the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services to allow six firefighters and paramedics who have refused to shave their beards for religious reasons to return to full-duty status.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson issued his ruling yesterday after the plaintiffs, who were on administrative duty, passed three tests to see whether they could get a proper fit from their face masks.

A seventh plaintiff has not completed his testing.

Art Spitzer, executive director of the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the bearded firefighters and paramedics, said the ruling is a victory.

“It’s definitely good news,” Mr. Spitzer said. “If my clients show they can do their jobs safely, they should be allowed to do them.”

Fire department spokesman Alan Etter noted that the judge’s ruling is not final. The ruling was issued because the men, who have been reassigned to administrative positions, have suffered an unjust financial hardship.

Mr. Etter said the fire department will appeal the ruling.

“We will abide by what the judge said, but it is contrary to our convictions that this is about firefighter safety,” he said.

Mr. Etter said that if any of the emergency workers fail a fit test, they will be reassigned to administrative duty.

The judge made his ruling during a hearing yesterday and is expected to issue a written order in the next few days.

Mr. Etter said the department’s grooming policy will not be changed until the order is issued in writing.

At issue in the department’s eight-year effort to institute a grooming policy is whether the masks worn by firefighters can properly protect them if they have beards.

Every fire department in the region prohibits facial hair that interferes with the fit of a mask.

The District has had such a rule since 1997, but it was not enforced until 2001. Five firefighters, including three still in the department, won a temporary injunction that year that allowed them to keep their beards and stay on active duty.

The issue resurfaced last May, when Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson issued an order stating firefighters and paramedics must be cleanshaven to undergo the yearly mask test.

The men returned to court, arguing that Chief Thompson was violating the preliminary injunction, a claim Judge Robertson rejected.

In August, Judge Robertson ruled that safety outweighs the religious rights of firefighters. That decision allowed the fire department to remove from active duty any members who refuse to shave.

However, the judge also stipulated that the department must test bearded firefighters to see whether they can get a proper seal from their face masks.

After that ruling, two more firefighters and four paramedics filed a separate lawsuit against the department. The two cases were consolidated, bringing to nine the total number of firefighters and paramedics that were claiming a religious preference.

Two of those firefighters ultimately shaved their beards and returned to full-duty status.

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