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Washington, D.C., Firefighter Battles to Keep His Beard

A veteran Jewish firefighter in Washington, D.C., is heading to court — with the backing of Muslim and Christian groups — to fight for his right to grow facial hair, an expression of what he says are his religious beliefs.

Steven Chasin, a paramedic with 18 years in the department, is fighting to keep his beard in defiance of an order passed two years ago that all fire department members be clean-shaven. Chasin, 40, is one of a group of fire department employees — the others are Muslims and Nazarene Christians — who are challenging the department's ban on facial hair, said Chasin's attorney, Art Spitzer.

"The idea behind the grooming regulation was they were trying to look professional, and that's not a good reason," Spitzer said.

Chasin said he's had a beard for years, and he's never had any problems.

"I am Jewish, and for more than 17 years I have worn a beard as an observance and expression of my Jewish faith," Chasin wrote in a court deposition.

"My beard was obvious to the Fire and EMS Department when I was hired. I keep my beard trimmed to a short length, probably about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch long. This is consistent with my religious beliefs. My beard has never interfered in any way with my performance of my duties."

Click here to read Chasin's deposition.

In June 2005, the department issued an order that required employees to shave in order to remain on active duty. Chasin and some others applied for exemptions from the department policy on religious grounds. When they were denied, they went to court.

A District Court sided with them, but the city is appealing. Now everyone's due back in court on Oct. 7.

The fire department maintains that on-the-job beards are not safe because they cause facial masks to buckle at the seal, reducing oxygen intake.

"This issue has been about firefighter safety," said fire department spokesman Alan Etter. "The standard for facial hair is a quarter inch or shorter, or else you can't have a safe seal with masks. You just cannot have a full beard."

But Spitzer said he's already disproved that theory, saying that the last time he was in court, he brought in an expert from New York City's fire department who testified that beards don't affect mask performance. The judge agreed.

Chasin said that when the department first issued face masks to EMS personnel seven years ago, he was tested for fit.

"I and all other EMS personnel were required to take a "fit test" to make sure we
could obtain a good fit with this new equipment. I passed the fit test, with my beard," he said in his deposition.

"People are trying to make this about beards for religious purposes. It's absolutely not. People say it's about having a well-groomed firehouse. It's not," Etter said. "What we care about is: Are you fit to go into burning building and put out fire, or deal with or treat people who've been exposed to hazardous chemical materials?

"If you cannot get a proper seal on a mask, you're not only putting yourself in danger, you're putting whoever you're trying to help in danger."

Chasin said that being penalized for his beard has led to a significant loss in income.

"My wife and I support two children,"he said. "I cannot afford to lose my job. If I am forced to choose between shaving my beard and losing my job, I will have to shave," he stated in court papers.

"But I do not believe the Department has any right to force me to shave when I can safely perform my job with a beard, as I have for more than fifteen years."