DC Fire and EMS members fight to keep beards on religious grounds

By Hilary Leila Krieger
The Jerusalem Post

WASHINGTON — Steven Chasin is the first to admit he isn't the world's most observant Jew.

Tattoos, a Jewish taboo, cover his burly body, while his shaved head goes bare. He doesn't go to synagogue every Shabbat or keep all the laws of kashrut.

He doesn't even hold what he calls a "Jewish type of job," like being a doctor or a lawyer.

"I'm not the perfect Jew," is how Chasin, a 40-year- old Fire Department paramedic from Virginia, puts it. But he has always strongly identified as one, and used outward symbols to reinforce the point, including the Star of David pendant that hangs around his neck and the full, brown beard that has graced his face for the past two decades.

"The beard is my way of celebrating and practicing," he explains. "The beard is making up for some of the stuff I don't do."

So when Chasin was told that he would have to remove it to comply with fire department regulations, he didn't take it well.

"It's frustrating. It's depressing also, because it doesn't impact my job," he says.

But that's not how the Washington, DC, Fire Department sees it. It considers the regulation necessary for safety reasons, and threatens those who don't comply with dismissal.

So Chasin, along with six Muslims and Nazarene Christians, filed suit, charging that they should be accommodated on grounds of religious freedom.

The District of Columbia District Court has sided with them, but the city is appealing. A hearing is scheduled for October 7.

The fire department argues that a beard can interfere with certain gas and oxygen masks that need an airtight seal with one's face to work. The department doesn't want to have firefighters and emergency medical technicians sent into harm's way if there are concerns about the effectiveness of the seals.

But the court found that it would take exceptional circumstances for the department to need to send men into range of dangerous gases with only the type of mask at issue; in most cases, other masks work, and even in the first unlikely scenario, those emergency workers could handle other parts of the rescue operation.

But the department continues to insist it's a safety hazard.

"You cannot have facial hair and expect to have a quality seal on your facemask," says DC Fire and EMS Department spokesman Alan Etter. "We're certainly not trying to suppress anyone's right to express themselves religiously. We have to keep people safe."

He also rejected the allegation that the shaving requirement was a "grooming issue," implemented to instill order and uniformity, though Chasin believes that consideration is behind the regulation, since it wasn't always on the books.

Chasin's lawyer, Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, says freedom of religion statutes mean fire department and other workplaces must make "reasonable accommodation" of religious beliefs.

In this case, he says there was no question about the sincerity of those religious beliefs on the part of any of the plaintiffs, and that "the real issue isn't the sincerity of the belief, but whether the belief can be accommodated."

In this case, so far, the court has said it can.

Continuing to work with a beard while the matter is pending has had its ups and downs, according to Chasin, with some co-workers being supportive and some looking askance.

But the bottom line, he says, is that "standing up for our beliefs is what it came down to. It doesn't matter — being Jewish, being Muslim, being Nazarene — we stood up for what we believe is right and didn't let them bully us."

Copyright 2008, The Jerusalem Post

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