The ink was all but dry on an agreement that would have brought to an end an ongoing civil rights suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department against the Philadelphia schools. But an eleventh-hour snag in a settlement aimed at protecting the religious right of Muslim employees to wear long beards now threatens to derail the deal.
Philly.com The suit at the center of the current dispute was filed in March by Siddiq Abu-Bakr, a police officer who has worked for the district since 1987. He contended that his civil rights were violated when he was ordered to trim his beard to a quarter-inch length under a dress-and-grooming code adopted by the district in 2010.
“The School District refused to sign the agreement if it were made public,” the Justice Department wrote in a recent court motion. This month, the department took the unusual step of asking a federal judge to enforce the accord over the district’s objections.
Philly.com: — The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia, claiming a rule regulating the length of employees’ beards constitutes religious discrimination. According to the suit filed in March 2014, the district in October 2010 instituted a new grooming policy preventing school police officers and security guards from having beards longer than a quarter of an inch.
School police officer Siddiq Abu-Bakr maintained an untrimmed beard for the 27 years he worked at the district, the suit states. Abu-Bakr is a member of the Islamic faith, which he says requires that he not cut his beard.
When Abu-Bakr notified his supervisor his religious beliefs precluded him from complying with the new policy, he was allegedly issued a written reprimand cautioning that continued violation of the rule would result in “further disciplinary action.”
Though, according to the suit, Abu-Bakr provided district officials with a letter from his imam confirming his religion prohibited him from trimming his beard, the district allegedly responded his request was outweighed by “the integrity of the policy.”
Abu-Bakr, who has maintained a long beard for religious reasons throughout his employment with the district, refused, and was reprimanded and threatened with further disciplinary action. His suit sought a religious accommodation to the dress code and monetary damages for any other affected district employees.
Court filings suggest the district and Justice Department attorneys reached an agreement within months of the filing of Abu-Bakr’s suit. The school system would revise its grooming code to allow for religious accommodations and provide supervisor training. Two officers would be offered $4,500 in monetary damages.
But hours later, the Justice Department says, the district returned with an ultimatum: Keep the deal off public court dockets, or it would back out.