Firefighter's beard a safety hazard, state court rules

By The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — A Muslim firefighter cannot wear a beard on the job because of the safety risk that facial hair poses, a judge ruled on Sept. 22.

Curtis De Veaux sued the city on grounds that the ban infringed on his Muslim faith, which generally requires men to grow beards. But the state judge sided with the city, calling safety a compelling interest that warrants an exception under the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.

The city had argued that beards interfere with the tight seal firefighters need on their respiratory masks, which deliver oxygen and keep out dangerous toxins.

De Veaux vowed to appeal, saying he would not cut his beard even to save his job.

“As great a job as it is, I still answer to Allah before I answer to the fire department,” he said.

De Veaux, 25, sought to be fit-tested with the mask to try to prove the seal over his short beard met safety standards.

Last month, a federal judge ordered officials in Washington, D.C., to fit-test three Muslim firefighters who sued on similar grounds. The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents De Veaux, also represents those plaintiffs.

“The three plaintiffs have fought hundreds of fires. They have never caused injuries to themselves, other firefighters, or members of the public on account of their beards,” U.S. District Judge James Robertson wrote in the recent ruling on the four-year-old Washington case. He also temporarily barred the district from firing the men.

De Veaux argued that the testing was the “least restrictive” way the city of Philadelphia could meet tenets of the state’s religious freedom act, but Common Pleas Judge James Murray Lynn disagreed.

“Directive 13 (the facial-hair ban) ... is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in maximizing safety for its members,” Lynn wrote in his order.

Anne Barden, an assistant city solicitor, praised the ruling.

“I think in view of the safety concerns, it’s a very important decision for the city,” Barden said.

No other major U.S. city allows firefighters to wear beards, Barden argued during the non-jury trial last week.

Abdul Majeed Potter, a plaintiff listed as Calvert L. Potter in the D.C. case, said he and another plaintiff were given fit-tests last week and passed. The results of the third man’s test were inconclusive, plaintiffs’ lawyer Mike Boteler said.

The three were recently put on administrative duty, which Potter said prevents him from earning overtime and holiday pay.

De Veaux, who has been on unpaid leave from the department for about six months, said he makes far less in his new job installing satellite TV systems. He earned more than $50,000 a year as a firefighter.