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Two Federal District Courts Decide Religious Discrimination Cases Involving Police Officers

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October 3, 2008

Two federal district courts recently issued rulings in cases involving religious discrimination and accommodation claims of police officers.

First, in Dodd v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, ("SEPTA"), a Rastafarian police officer alleged religious discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. His employer terminated him for repeatedly violating the grooming code and violating internal complaint procedures. SEPTA's grooming code required male officers to keep their hair under their hats. The officer's Rastafarian religion prohibited him from cutting his hair. SEPTA formally disciplined the police officer on several occasions for violating the code. In addition, the officer wrote and distributed two memos criticizing SEPTA regarding issues of discrimination and police misconduct within the SEPTA Police Department. SEPTA suspended the officer and required the officer to undergo a psychological evaluation. SEPTA also investigated whether the officer's memos violated its internal complaint procedures. Approximately 6 months later, when the officer again violated the grooming code by wearing his long hair in a ponytail on the job, SEPTA terminated him.

The Pennsylvania federal district court held that SEPTA's stated reasons for disciplining and discharging the officer that the officer had violated SEPTA's grooming code and internal complaint procedures could be pretext for religious discrimination. Further, SEPTA had subjected the police officer to several adverse employment actions, including an involuntary psychological test, several suspensions, and termination. The court found that SEPTA's grooming policy interfered with the officer's religious practice because he was unable to maintain his long hair and comply with the grooming standards and that SEPTA had failed to make good faith efforts to accommodate the officer's religious beliefs – such as allowing him to wear a ponytail as female officers were allowed to do. Further, the court found that the police chief's derogatory comments about the Rastafarian religion and the officer's supervisor's comment that the Rastafarian religion consisted of "people smok[ing] marijuana" and wearing dreadlocks constituted evidence of religious bias. The court also held that the officer's frequent encounters with supervisors concerning his hair and his religion were sufficiently pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment. Therefore, the court declined to grant SEPTA's summary judgment motion as to the officer's religious discrimination, failure to accommodate, hostile work environment and retaliation claims.

In Riback v. Las Vegas Metro. Police Dep't, an Orthodox Jewish police officer alleged violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and Title VII after his employer denied his request to wear a trimmed beard and a yarmulke on the job. The police department initially granted him temporary permission to keep a trimmed beard but later found that his appearance conflicted with the department's personal appearance and grooming policy. The officer shaved his beard but continued to wear his yarmulke on the job. The officer formally requested an accommodation explaining his faith's requirement that he wear facial hear and a head covering indoors. The police department denied the request. The officer filed suit and both parties moved for summary judgment.

The Las Vegas federal district court partially granted the officer's summary judgment motion. Regarding the officer's Free Exercise Clause claim, the court held that the police department lacked a compelling reason for denying the officer's request to wear a beard as part of his religious observance when the city grants exemptions from its no-beard policy for medical reasons. The court found that allowing the officer to wear a beard on a job in which an employee had limited public contact did not compromise the police department's interest in maintaining a religiously neutral appearance to the public. The court noted that since it already had found police department's no-beard policy invalid under the Free Exercise Clause, it would not evaluate the officer's claim under Title VII but that it would have reached the same result.

The court, however, declined to grant summary judgment to the officer on his Title VII claim on the headgear issue. The court felt that material factual issues remained on whether the police department made a good faith effort to accommodate the officer's request to wear a yarmulke or a baseball cap and whether his request placed an undue hardship on the police department.

These cases illustrate the need for employers to proceed with caution and consult legal counsel before granting or denying employee requests for religious accommodations and/or terminating employees when religious accommodation issues are involved.

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