Philadelphia school district accused of bias over beard-grooming policy

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 spokesman for the school district, the eighth largest school district in the nation, 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 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.

Abu-Bakr originally filed a religious-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC's Philadelphia office investigated, found there was reason to believe discrimination had taken place and referred the case to the Department of Justice.

The local EEOC office's district director, Spencer H. Lewis Jr., said modifying a dress or grooming policy can allow someone to keep working without posing an undue hardship to his or her employer.

"No employee should be forced to violate his religious beliefs," Lewis said, "in order to earn a living."