A Muslim police officer, who sued the New York Police Department over a policy limiting beard length allowed for religious reasons, would face irreparable harm without protection from the courts, a judge said on Thursday as he ordered the city to reinstate the officer’s pay and benefits a day after he was suspended and escorted from police headquarters.
First Post US District Judge P Kevin Castel criticised the city repeatedly before finding it was probable Officer Masood Syed would succeed and issuing a temporary restraining order that will remain in place until a 8 July hearing.
The department says it bans beards as a safety measure so gas masks fit tightly across faces but allows beards for religious reasons up to 1 millimetre in length.
The judge, who is bearded, said 1 millimetre of hair exists when a man is unshaven for a day or two. He said it seemed the policy is enforced haphazardly.
Syed said two uniformed supervisors escorted him from Manhattan NYPD headquarters where he works as a law clerk to administrative judges, sometimes preparing legal documents for the police commissioner about disciplinary issues.
“It was extremely humiliating,” Syed said. “I felt insulted, frankly.”
Syed said he has maintained a 1-inch beard for most of his 10-year career, only occasionally drawing critical comments. He said he hoped his lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, would help over 100 police employees who find the religious exception to the department’s no-beard policy insufficient because they say the length of the beard allowed is not reasonable.
The judge became impatient as he questioned Fleming about the policy and the department’s failure to respond to a December 2015 request by 37 police officers for an exception to the no-beard policy.
“Let’s play 20 questions,” Castel said at one point. “The court is troubled by the fact it cannot get an answer,” he said at another.
City attorney Michael Fleming said the beard ban was necessary. Besides for religious reasons, exceptions exist for undercover duties and medical conditions.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified financial damages and a court order banning the NYPD from enforcing its beard policy until it provides reasonable religious accommodations. Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulations require annual fit-testing and prohibit respirators for employees with facial hair.
Attorney Joshua Moskovitz, representing Syed, told Castel the department’s policy violates the First Amendment and threatens Syed’s job, his retirement benefits and his reputation. He said the department took Syed’s shield and weapon Tuesday before he “was escorted out in front of his friends and colleagues.”