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Feds sue Philly school district over bearded employee, accuse it of religious discrimination

The city's school district has been accused in a federal lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice of discriminating against an employee who said he couldn't trim his beard for religious reasons.

The complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, alleges the School District of Philadelphia in October 2010 instituted a grooming policy preventing school police and security officers from having beards more than a quarter of an inch long and discriminated against Siddiq Abu-Bakr and other people by failing to accommodate their religious beliefs.

A school district spokesman didn't immediately return a cellphone message seeking comment on the lawsuit Wednesday night. His school voicemail box was full.

Abu-Bakr, a longtime school police officer, is a member of the Islamic faith, which requires him to let his beard grow, the lawsuit says. He has kept his beard, which is longer than a quarter of an inch, uncut for the 27 years he has worked for the school district, and there's no evidence it has interfered with his job performance, the lawsuit says.

When Abu-Bakr told his supervisor he couldn't comply with the district's grooming policy for religious reasons he was given a written reprimand for violating it, the complaint says.

The Department of Justice said the school district failed to consider Abu-Bakr's request for reasonable accommodation and then denied it without showing that it would cause undue hardship.

The department, through the lawsuit, is seeking to have the school district develop and implement new grooming policies that would prevent employees from being discriminated against based on religion. It also wants monetary damages for Abu-Bakr and other people in similar situations.

Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Jocelyn Samuels said federal law requires employers, even those with grooming policies, to reasonably accommodate religious observances and practices.

"Individuals should not have to choose between maintaining their jobs and practicing their faith when accommodations can be reasonably made," Samuels said.

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