Philadelphia firefighter loses lawsuit over beard

Philadelphia Inquirer

A suspended Philadelphia firefighter who sued the city for the right to wear his beard on the job lost his bid before a state judge yesterday.

To Curtis DeVeaux, 25, the beard is his religious obligation as a Muslim. But to Common Pleas Court Judge James Murray, the facial hair constitutes a safety hazard.

DeVeaux, of the Northeast, was suspended without pay on Feb. 2 after refusing to shave. The Fire Department bans beards, saying they interfere with the tight facial seal on masks that provide oxygen to firefighters and keep poisons out.

DeVeaux sued under the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.

Murray did not tackle the constitutionality of the law, which says that, unless a compelling interest can be shown, religious expression should be respected. The judge cited safety as a compelling interest.

The American Civil Liberties Union represented DeVeaux.

"It was very clear that Curtis has a sincerely held religious belief with respect to growing his beard," ACLU lawyer Mary Catherine Roper said. "So it was the city's burden to show that he couldn't be a safe firefighter unless he shaved his beard."

DeVeaux wears a trim beard, less than a half-inch long, Roper said. She said the city should have allowed DeVeaux to test how tightly the mask would fit with his beard. A federal judge in Washington last month ordered officials there to fit-test three Muslim firefighters, also ACLU plaintiffs in similar cases.

"Basically, what it comes down to is a test... " Roper said. "They would not test him. They absolutely refused to conduct the test."

The city solicitor's office could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

DeVeaux was a firefighter for two years before he was suspended. He has been a Muslim for about five years but has become more observant in recent years.

"He realized he could have both. He could be a good Muslim, and he could be safe, so he asked for an exemption," Roper said.

Since DeVeaux's suspension, he has made a living installing satellite TV systems but that - he said, through his attorney - is not his life's calling. He wants to be a firefighter and says he will appeal yesterday's ruling to Commonwealth Court.

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