Muslim Officers Win Right to Wear Beards

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
March 4, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, March 4, 1999

NEWARK, NJ — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty today applauded a federal appeals court decision saying that a Newark Police Department rule barring officers from wearing beards violated Sunni Muslim officers’ First Amendment right to religious freedom.

Sunni Muslim men are required by their faith to grow beards, in order to distinguish themselves from other religious groups. But the Newark Police Department refused to make exemptions from its prohibition on beards for officers whose religious beliefs prohibited them from shaving. However, the Department did make exceptions for medical reasons.

The ACLU of New Jersey joined with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Anti-Defamation League in arguing as a “friend of the court” that the Department’s rule violated the officers’ right to religious freedom.

“This decision is an important reaffirmation that public employees do not lose their right to religious freedom during working hours,” said David Rocah, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey. “When the government grants secular exemptions to workplace rules, it should not be able to deny comparable religious exemptions without a compelling reason.”

The Department argued that allowing religious exemptions would undermine discipline, uniformity, and “esprit de corps” among officers. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected that argument, stating that the Department “has provided no legitimate explanation as to why the presence of officers who wear beards for medical reasons does not have this effect but the presence of officers who wear beards for religious reasons would.”

Kevin Hasson, President of the Becket Fund, who presented oral argument on behalf of the Fund, the ACLU, and the Anti-Defamation League, also applauded the court’s decision. “The Court makes clear that religious expression is as normal a part of life as any other. This is another installment in the return of common sense to the law of religious liberty,” Hasson said.

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