An Atlantic City, New Jersey firefighter filed suit last week for religious discrimination after he was removed from service over his beard.
The firefighter, who alleges that his job is to ensure that the masks that firefighters wear when fighting fires are in good working order, ironically was removed from service allegedly because his beard could compromise the seal of the masks which are designed to supply oxygen if needed and to prevent firefighters from breathing smoke while putting out a fire.
Firefighter Alexander Smith claims that he recently became a born again Christian and symbolic of his faith he began growing a beard late last year. The Department has a policy prohibiting beards and goatees because they interfere with the seal on the masks that firefighters wear when engaging in fire suppression. In early January of this year, Smith asked for a religious accommodation allowing him to maintain a beard. He claims that he does not actually engage in fire suppression, but rather is a mask specialist. The Department denied his request and he filed suit last week claiming religious discrimination.
Facial hair and hair length are two of the more common religious accommodations requested by employees related to appearance. Like other reasonable accommodations, they are evaluated on a case by case basis. The determination is driven by the duties of the requesting employee and the hardship the accommodation may case. While on its face, Firefighter Smith may seem to have a compelling case for an accommodation, one can easily imagine other factors that led to the Department’s denial of his request. For instance, if Firefighter Smith is required to be present at fires to work on the masks of other firefighters, his own health and safety may require him to occasionally wear a mask. Similarly, even if his regular duties are not fire suppression, he might need to be available to engage in that activity when necessary.
Fires are unpredictable and demand strict safety guidelines, which is not always the case for other jobs. In any event, employers should ensure that job descriptions accurately reflect the duties of a position and when evaluating a request for religious accommodation, the need and ability to do those job duties is analyzed fairly, keeping in mind that a reasonable accommodation is usually not hiring another employee to pick up the work that can’t be done by the requesting employee or placing the safety of the employee or others in jeopardy in order to grant the accommodation.