NY firefighter gets new lawyer in discrimination suit

John Brooks said he's been subjected to a hostile work environment, threatened with disciplinary action and harassed because he refuses to cut his hair

By Elizabeth Doran
Syracuse Media Group

UTICA, N.Y. — A Utica city firefighter who is alleging discrimination based on his gender and religious beliefs has filed an amended civil complaint with the help of new religious-rights lawyers

John Brooks, son of former Utica Fire Chief Russell Brooks, said in court papers he's been subjected to a hostile work environment, threatened with disciplinary action, harassed and ridiculed because he refuses to cut his hair. The original complaint was filed in federal court in December 2016.

Brooks, a Utica firefighter since 2006, is a "Nazirite" and as such can't cut his hair, the lawsuit says. A Nazirite is someone who has taken a vow to God not to cut his head hair, not to drink alcohol and not to come into contact with corpses or graves.

Brooks is now being represented by Albany-area lawyer Tom Marcelle, a longtime advocate of religious rights in the courtroom and who won a Supreme Court case in 2001.

Marcelle is joined by the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal firm specializing in religious rights."

Roger Byron, senior counsel with the Liberty Institute, said the amended complaint, filed Oct. 26, outlines how Brooks has been discriminated against, harassed, and ridiculed for his religious convictions.

Brooks, who remains on the job, is asking for compensatory damages for his "emotional pain and suffering," punitive damages and attorney's fees, according to the complaint, filed in federal court.

Brooks has repeatedly asked the city of Utica for an accommodation for his long hair, and the Utica Fire Department has required him to either cut his hair or wear a hair net while on duty, Byron said.

The hair net is a safety risk to Brooks as it interfered with his oxygen mask while he was fighting a house fire in 2014, the court papers say.

"The hair net kept the mask from sealing to his face, which put his life in danger,'' Byron said.

The Utica fire department allows female firefighters to have longer hair than Brooks, the papers say.

Brooks said in court documents he's been a Nazirite since 2014, and has not cut his hair since May 2014. In a court deposition, Brooks said he doesn't know how long his hair is, but estimates it grows five inches a year.

In January 2015, Brooks said he was directed to cut his hair because of safety-related reasons. When Brooks asked for an "accommodation" or exception because of his religious beliefs, his request was denied or ignored, according to court documents.

"He just wants to be treated fairly, like everyone else,'' Byron said. "This is a textbook case of religious discrimination."

The city, in a document filed earlier this year, said the hair restriction is based on "legitimate business reasons" and that the order does not violate any of Brooks' rights.

Copyright 2017 Syracuse Media Group

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