Last week marked an important decision before the panel of judges on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the right of a policewoman to wear a headscarf while on duty. Should someone who has chosen to dedicate her work towards the public's safety be denied the right to cover her hair?
While it will take several weeks for the court to make that determination in common law, the Philadelphia Police Department's effort to ban Officer Kimberlie Webb's headscarf in the interim exposes a curious aversion to a Muslim practice.
Webb was not born a Muslim, but a few years after graduating from the police academy she converted to Islam in 1995. She continued her service on the police force, and eventually chose to wear the headscarf. She put in a formal request in 2003, which was denied by the police department. She then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is charged with investigating employment discrimination that violates federal law.
It took the commission a year and a half to do their investigation, but finally gave her a right-to-sue letter in October of 2005. However, in June of 2007, the district court dismissed her claim without trial. It was then that she approached the Council on American Islamic Relations, which provided her with two pro-bono attorneys to handle her appeal.
"There are jurisdictions throughout the country that allow the hijab," said Justin Peyton, the executive director of CAIR's chapter in Philadelphia. "In New York and Los Angeles there are traffic and transit police that allow their officers to wear any religious clothing, including the hijab and turbans for the Sikh people. If they pose no danger, there is no reason to believe it will with Webb as a police officer."
A uniform policy
The judges of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the issue last week. For their part, the Philadelphia Police Department argues that it violates what they call directive 78, part of their uniform policy, which states in detail the uniform that is to be worn. The directive doesn't ban any religious clothing, but they are arguing that if an item of clothing is not included, it's automatically prohibitive.
But Webb and Peyton disagree.
"I think it is very important to find in favor of her because no individual should have to conceal their religious identity when they go to work," said Peyton. "To ban their religious clothing, regardless of religion, fosters an environment of intolerance. Those other jurisdictions that allow it already have proved that it does not pose any health or safety issues to the officers." (MORE)