DOJ, Philly School Dist. Settle Religious Bias Suit Over Length of Muslim Employee’s Beard

Employers take note. You cannot out-of-hand turn down an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation allowing an employee to wear a beard more than the prescribed length under the your rules unless it would cause undue hardship.

The School District of Philadelphia will no longer be able to routinely deny police officers’ requests to be able to wear their beards at longer length due to religious reasons. Under a settlement reached with the U.S. Department of Justice last week, the school district agreed to institute a procedure to handle reasonable accommodation request by officers seeking to be excused from its policy limiting beards to one-quarter inch.

DOJ had sued on behalf of Siddiq Abu-Bakr, a school police officer who is Muslim, and similarly-situated employees who maintain a beard longer than one-quarter inch for religious purposes but were denied a reasonable accommodation.

“Consistent with his religious beliefs, Abu-Bakr has maintained a beard longer than one-quarter inch the entire time that he has worked for the school district, with no indication that the beard diminished his performance.”

Under the agreement, the school district agreed to:

  • develop and distribute a revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy, which will include a procedure by which school police officers can request a religious accommodation;
  • notify current and prospective school police officers that their religious accommodation requests will be considered on an individualized basis and that the school district will engage in an interactive process with the school police officers before denying any religious accommodation requests under the revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy;
  • provide mandatory training on religious accommodation to all supervisors, managers, human resources officials and other individuals who may receive inquiries from school police officers regarding the revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy.

The school district also will pay compensatory damages to two similarly-situated employees and will expunge all discipline related to the policy from their personnel files.

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