Safety not an issue for Muslim Firefighters says Islamic Group
A national Islamic advocacy group said today that safety is not an issue in a dispute over whether Muslim firefighters in Washington, D.C., may wear beards for religious reasons. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines permit beards when firefighters wear so- called "positive flow" respirators, the type used in the national's capital.
CAIR cited a 1996 OSHA "interpretation" that read in part: "The OSHA standard does allow beards with the use of respirators that do not rely on a tight facepiece seal between the respirator inlet covering and the underlying skin (i.e., both loose fitting helmets and hoods are acceptable in this regard)."
A 1998 OSHA interpretation stated: "OSHA has not exempted any workers for religious reasons, however we recognize that if such a situation should arise, there are respiratory protection alternatives such as loose-fitting hoods or helmets that will accommodate facial hair."
Several Muslim firefighters have been or are being threatened with suspension and termination for refusing to shave their beards. CAIR yesterday called on D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few to halt any action to suspend or terminate the firefighters while the issue is being resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. The group also offered to mediate a resolution of the problem.
"Along with the issue of safety, we resent the implication that Muslims who wear beards cannot present a 'professional' appearance," said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. Few had cited safety and appearance as his main reasons for enforcing the grooming policy.
In 1991, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the fire department's grooming policy had no safety benefits and discriminated on the basis of appearance. (Kennedy v. District of Columbia) In that ruling, the court added that: "the grooming regulations specifically undermine the sought team spirit and respect for authority within the Fire Department."
In 1999, a Supreme Court action left intact a lower court ruling supporting the right of Muslim police officers to wear beards. The earlier ruling, issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, said the Newark (N.J.) Police Department's no-beard policy was discriminatory because it allowed medical but not religious exemptions. (Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Newark)
CAIR assisted in the resolution of beard-related cases with: 1) the Virginia Department of Corrections, 2) the Detroit Fire Department, 3) the Ansonia, Conn., police department, and 4) the New York State Park Police. A number of non-governmental beard cases have also been resolved successfully. The group publishes a booklet, called "An Employer's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices," designed to prevent these incidents from occurring.