WASHINGTON The Supreme Court today refused to review a lower court ruling that barred the Newark, N.J., policy department from firing two Muslim officers for wearing beards.
The high court, acting without comment, rejected the city's appeal and left intact the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Newark. The 3rd Circuit ruled that such a ban on beards would violate the officers' freedom of religion.
Since 1971, the Newark Police Department barred officers from wearing beards but allowed them to wear mustaches and sideburns.
Officers Shakoor Mustafa and Faruq Abdul-Aziz are Sunni Muslims who say their religion requires them to wear beards. Both said they wore beards while serving on the force for at least 10 years, but that in 1997 the police chief issued a new "zero tolerance" policy.
The policy contained an exception for officers with medical conditions that kept them from shaving, but it did not contain a religious exemption.
After Mustafa and Aziz were charged with disobeying orders to shave and were threatened with being fired, they sued. Their lawsuit said enforcement of the policy violated their right to freely exercise their religion.
A federal judge ruled for the two officers, and the 3rd Circuit agreed last year.
The two officers "are entitled to a religious exemption since the department already makes secular exemptions," the appeals court said.
In the appeal acted on today, the police department's lawyers said the no-beard policy was intended to present a "professional and dignified image to the public" and establish discipline and solidarity within the ranks.
Officers given medical exemptions are transferred to administrative duties with little contact with the public, the department's lawyers said.
The two officers' lawyers said officers with medical reasons for beards wrongly were treated more leniently than those who wear beards for religious reasons.