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DC firefighters win court battle over beards

Dave Statter

WASHINGTON — Victory for a group of firefighters and paramedics with the District of Columbia Fire & EMS Department in the fight to retain facial hair. The decision came today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

In describing the decision, attorney William Iverson told Legal Times reporter Mike Scarcella that the ruling for his clients hinged on a procedural matter. Iverson, with the firm Covington & Burling, said it isn’t likely to set precedent under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In his concurring opinion, Senior Judge Stephen Williams wrote, "Unfortunately for the District, its own muddled litigation strategy rendered summary judgment for the plaintiffs a legitimate outcome."

Covington & Burling, along with the DC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, took the case pro-bono.

The latest battle began in May of 2005 when the fire chief at the time, Adrian Thompson, ordered crews to be clean-shaven for annual mask testing. A group of fire and EMS workers claimed religious freedom and refused to shave their facial hair.

Prior to that, in 2001, a federal judge had granted a temporary injunction, saying a grooming order by Chief Ronnie Few violated the religious freedom of the department's employees.

DC Fire & EMS Department spokesman Alan Etter is referring reporters seeking comment on today's ruling to the DC Office of the Attorney General.

Paramedic Steve Chasin, who is also the chief shop steward of AFGE Local 3721, is one of the plaintiffs in the case. Chasin, a Jew, was joined in the lawsuit by six Muslims and Nazarene Christians on the department. He provided these comments to via email:

I am glad it is over. It has been a a stressful four years for me, with the outcome of the case hanging over not only my head but my family's as well. There is vindication for those of us whom the Fire and EMS Department told to make a choice between our religious practice and beliefs and our jobs. We have been successfully performing our duties for years while wearing our beards and can now continue to do so without fear of losing our jobs.

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