Suspending Rastafarian Police Officer for Wearing Dreadlocks Violates Religious Liberty, ACLU Says

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
July 11, 2000 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE, MD — The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today called on the Baltimore Police Department to reinstate a suspended Rastafarian police officer who wears his hair in locks for religious reasons.

“Federal, state, and city law prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion,” said ACLU staff counsel Nicole Gray Porter. “Punishing a police officer for his religious practices is clearly illegal.”

The ACLU also called on the Baltimore Police Department to rescind its rules prohibiting locks, cornrows or braids, noting that these rules prohibit hair styles worn primarily by African Americans.

Officer Antoine Chambers, formerly of the Baltimore Police Department’s Northern Division, is a devout Rastafarian. One tenet of the Rastafarian faith is that adherents wear their hair in locks. Officer Chambers has worn his hair in locks for more than a year without incident. Ms. Porter noted that Officer Chambers’ locks are “short and well-groomed.”

In June, however, the Northern Division’s commander issued an instruction forbidding personnel from wearing locks, braids, or cornrows. Officer Chambers told police officials that his religion precluded him from complying with the instruction. He was told to present a letter from a religious authority explaining the significance of locks.

After presenting a letter from Baltimore City Councilman Dr. Norman A. Handy, Sr., explaining the significance of locks, however, Officer Chambers was still ordered to cut them off. When he refused, hewas stripped of his police powers. Other Baltimore Police Department divisions, however, include a religious exception in their grooming standards.

“Officer Chambers wears his hair in locks for religious reasons,” said Porter. “Telling him to cut off his locks is no different than telling a devout Jewish police officer that he can’t wear a yarmulke in uniform.”

The ACLU is exploring the legal remedies available to Officer Chambers, who has a complaint pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But Porter said she hopes the Baltimore Police Department will reinstate Officer Chambers and rescind the policy before the case is litigated in court.

“Returning Antoine Chambers to duty is the right thing to do,” she said.

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