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Bearded Cop’s Suspension Sprouted From Bias

MANHATTAN (CN) — A federal judge reinstated pay and benefits Wednesday to the New York City police officer whose suspension this Ramadan inspired him to fight the department's beard policy.

Masood Syed says he has sported a trim beard, in keeping with his Sunni Islamic faith, for his entire decade on the force.

In 2011, the NYPD granted him a religious accommodation to keep his beard at 1-millimeter, but Syed says that an unwritten rule has always allowed him and other officers to grow theirs more than an inch.

Syed requested formal permission for him and 37 other officers to keep their beards that length on Dec. 12, 2015.

The department never replied to that request until it ordered Syed to shave or face suspension on Monday.

Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims, began on June 6.

After refusing the order on Tuesday, Syed was forced to surrender his badge and weapon, and ushered him out of NYPD headquarters at 1 Police Plaza in Manhattan. Syed told reporters today that a police escort paraded him out the door in front of him comrades, the day before his birthday and during the holiest month of the Islamic calendar.

"It was extremely humiliating," Syed said this afternoon. "I felt insulted, frankly."

The Pakistani-American filed a class action on behalf of hundreds of other Muslim officers this morning at 9 a.m.

At the time of the press conference, Syed had emerged victorious from an emergency hearing seeking an injunction against the NYPD.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel, who himself sported a salt-and-pepper beard and moustache, said he was "troubled" by how little information a city lawyer had about the NYPD's facial hair policy.

The city's lawyer Michael Fleming endured extensive grilling about the department's policy during the roughly hourlong hearing.

Fleming did not know, for example, whether an officer with a face rash would get a dispensation to let his beard grow longer than a millimeter with a doctor's note.

"Under those circumstances, Your Honor, I don't," he acknowledged.

Nor did Fleming know whether a Jewish officer in mourning would be able to observe the ritual of shloshim, which includes a month-long prohibition against shaving.

Visibly frustrated, Judge Castel told the city lawyer: "Your client should furnish you with information about that."

Syed's lawyer Joshua Moskovitz, from the firm Beldock Levine & Hoffman, had plenty of facts at his disposal. He told the court that he had an approximately 2-mm beard, calling it the average facial-hair length of a man who does not shave for a day.

His adversary counsel Fleming quibbled that it probably varies upon the man.

"My beard grow a little differently than Mr. Moskovitz's does," he said.

The NYPD has been in Manhattan Federal Court before for failing to accommodate a religious beard.

In 2013, the late U.S. District Judge Harold Baer found that the city violated the constitutional rights of an Orthodox Jewish officer named Fishel Litzman, who also refused to shave on First Amendment grounds.

After Syed's attorney cited Litzman's case, city lawyer Fleming said: "It is my understanding that [Litzman] has different religious beliefs from the plaintiff."

The distinction did not persuade Castel, who ordered the city to reinstate Syed's pay and benefits.

Noting that Syed's beard was "at least this morning, neatly trimmed," the judge stopped short of sending the well-groomed officer back to his post, where he works as a law clerk for six administrative judges within the NYPD.

A different federal judge, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe, will make that decision after a preliminary injunction hearing scheduled for July 8.

Before that time, Castel said, the NYPD must turn over information about the department's policy to Syed's legal team on an expedited basis. Syed will collect all of his salary and benefits until that time, and the department cannot take any adverse action against him.

Syed, who turns 32 years old today, looked happy and relaxed following the hearing.

"I am very relieved, very happy, with the judge's decision," he said.

Birthday celebrations will be spartan because of Syed's religious obligations.

Syed told reporters that he will spend the day fasting.

The NYPD justifies its facial hair restrictions on the fact that officers with beards sometimes have difficulty putting on the department's gas masks — known as the MSA Millennium model respirator. But that would not appear to be a typical feature of Syed's legal work for the department.

Syed spends his days advising the NYPD on how to lawfully enforce its policies.

"I think the word is irony," his attorney Moskovitz said.

Eager to get back to work, Syed said of being a police officer: "I love this job."

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