D.C. firefighters have asked a judge to hold the District in contempt of court for a policy that bans beards, resurrecting a battle fought over facial hair decades ago.
In a motion filed this month in federal court in Washington, firefighters say they were removed from field duty and reassigned to lesser roles and received less compensation because they refused to shave after the D.C. Fire and EMS Department (D.C. FEMS) issued a policy in 2020 prohibiting most kinds of facial hair.
Steven Chasin, Calvert Potter, Jasper Sterling and Hassan Umrani each wear 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 about 15 years ago under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), filings from their attorneys state. The department’s latest policy unlawfully ignored the court order that allows them to keep their facial hair as an expression of religious beliefs, the firefighters argue.
“There really is no excuse,” Jordan Pratt, senior counsel with First Liberty Institute, said in an interview. “They [D.C. FEMS] decided to be their own federal judge and violate the federal court order. That violation caused our clients harm for a year and a half.”
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A D.C. FEMS spokesperson directed all inquiries to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Many fire departments that ban facial hair for employees argue beards prevent masks from creating a proper seal and reduce their effectiveness.
In 2007, the District worked to keep its grooming policy in support of shaving, saying it was in the interest of safety, according to court documents filed by the D.C. attorney general’s office.
“The District maintains that it is unsafe to wear a tight-fitting face-piece with facial hair at the point of seal regardless of whether the face-piece is used in a positive or negative configuration,” the District argued in a motion.
But in 2007, U.S. 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 his duty,” according to a court memorandum.
In the department’s newest policy, issued in February 2020, employees were prohibited from having “facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the face piece and the face,” “facial hair that interferes with the valve function,” or “any condition that interferes with the face-to-face piece seal or valve function,” according to the court motion. The language of the policy mirrors the policy that D.C. FEMS was permanently ordered not to apply, using the same safety interests as before, Pratt said.
The policy “intends to protect and enhance the safety of all members and thereby support our ability to provide efficient fire and emergency medical services to the residents and visitors of the District of Columbia,” according to a general order from D.C. FEMS cited in the motion.
Each plaintiff informed their supervisor of the policy violating the federal court order, but was still reassigned from field duty in March 2020, Pratt said.
The enforcement was initially scheduled for April 2020 but was moved up through a special order issued by the department, which said 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 mask’s seal,” according to the motion. The policy in D.C. came in the earlier months of the coronavirus pandemic, but the firefighters argue that the District had planned to reinstate the beard ban before the covid emergency.
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The reassignments to logistical positions resulted in the firefighters losing opportunities to earn overtime and holiday pay, which was less total pay than they would have received had they remained on field duty, the plaintiffs asserted.
Potter and his family “experienced increased psychological stress and frustration” because of the lesser income, and Umrani was “unable to participate in specific job training activities” and “was not allowed to apply for a promotion” at his firehouse because he was not in the field, their court filings said. Sterling said he was forced to “use leave time to attend medical appointments” and could no longer take his son to school on off days because the new assignment changed his schedule. Chasin also had to use leave time for medical appointments, according to the motion.
“It was only after we got involved and sent a letter that explained, ‘Well, you can’t just unilaterally violate federal injunctions.’ It’s only then that they restored them to field duty, but so far just have not been willing to adequately compensate our clients for the harm that their violation caused,” Pratt said.
Potter and Sterling were restored to field duty in October 2021, and Umrani was in December 2021. Chasin transferred to an administrative position in March 2021 at his choosing, according to the motion.
The latest fight over the department’s grooming policies, earlier reported by WTOPmirrors legal wrangling that goes back decades. In 2001, firefighters brought suit against D.C. FEMS for violating their religious freedoms by forcing them to cut their hair or shave their beards, and won. The department had argued the policy was 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 as to why they should not be held in contempt of court. Attorneys are requesting compensatory relief for the plaintiffs.
After years of back and forth over beard policy, the plaintiffs again are seeking that the permanent court order is being followed under RFRA, and that firefighters practicing religious beliefs are protected, Pratt said.
“In a world without RFRA, it’s the minority religions that would suffer the most,” Pratt said.