Friday, August 12, 2005

A federal judge has ruled that safety outweighs the religious rights of three Muslim firefighters who have refused to shave their beards for religious reasons.

U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson issued the ruling late Thursday, which is the latest chapter in the department’s eight-year effort to enforce a grooming policy to ensuring firefighters get a proper fit for their face masks.

Both sides claimed victory yesterday.

Attorney Arthur Spitzer, who represented the Muslim firefighters on behalf of the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was satisfied that the judge’s order left intact a preliminary injunction prohibiting fire officials from terminating the Muslim firefighters.

The judge also stated fire officials must now test the men to see whether they can get a proper fit with their beards.

Mr. Spitzer said if the firefighters pass the test, then they’ve won. He said the real issue is the fire department’s effort to institute a grooming policy.

However, Judge Robertson’s ruling also states the department has the right to remove from active-duty status the firefighters who fail the test, regardless of their adherence to religious beliefs.

“It is encouraging to note that the judge recognizes this is a critical safety issue,” said Alan Etter, a fire department spokesman.

Mr. Etter said that in addition to the three original plaintiffs protected by the 2001 injunction, six other firefighters have claimed religious exemption.

He said all of the firefighters have been placed on administrative duty until they are in compliance with department policy.

Judge Robertson said the bearded firefighters clearly could get a proper fit when oxygen was flowing into their masks and creating a pressure seal. But it is not clear whether they can get a seal without the oxygen flow because the District has refused to test them if they were not cleanshaven, he said.

“That rigidity is not acceptable,” the judge said.

In hazardous materials situations, firefighters remove the oxygen line from their masks and replace it with an air filter.

Mr. Spitzer said if the bearded firefighters fail the mask test, he might go back to the judge “to show there’s alternate apparatus that can provide the same protection.”

However, the judge said the department has provided “compelling testimony” that specialized masks or loose-fitting hoods that may allow a better fit for a bearded firefighter are in short supply and could be inconsistent with what is being used by other members of the department and other departments in the region.

All the fire departments in the region prohibit 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 in May when Chief Adrian H. Thompson issued an order stating firefighters 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.

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