Court Debacle Puts NYPD Beard Policy Under Scrutiny

     MANHATTAN (CN) — With only a few days before the close of Ramadan, a Muslim officer got his job back in the New York City Police Department, suspending litigation over beard regulations that drew fire from a federal judge.
     On June 21, the NYPD told officer Masood Syed to either shave his beard or face immediate suspension.
     Syed said the ultimatum fell on the eve of his 32nd birthday, and in the middle of Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar.
     When Syed refused the order, the NYPD stripped the Pakistani-American officer of his badge, and supervisors escorted him out of headquarters at 1 Police Plaza in front of his fellow officers.
     Sparks flew at a hearing on Syed’s ensuing lawsuit, when the city attorney Michael Fleming offered little information on the NYPD’s facial-hair policy.
     Fleming did not know whether a doctor’s note would allow an officer with a face rash to take a break from his razor, nor did he know whether a Jewish officer in mourning would be able to observe shloshim, the ritual of month-long prohibition against shaving.
     “Your client should furnish you with information about that,” U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel had said.
     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.
     After Castel ordered the NYPD to reinstate Syed’s pay and benefits, he set another hearing for July 8 to determine whether the NYPD’s beard policy violated the First Amendment rights of Muslim officers to religious freedom.
     The city foreclosed that hearing by settling with Syed on Thursday. The deal returns Syed to his job as an NYPD legal adviser while the department conducts as 120-day review of its beard policies.
     As they currently stand, the NYPD forbids officers from growing beards, except for those the department allows to grow their facial hair out 1-millimeter for religious or medical reasons.
     The department claims the policy is necessary for officers to use its gas masks — known as the MSA Millennium model respirator.
     Many officers follow an unwritten rule, however, allowing much larger beards of up to an inch, according to Syed’s lawsuit.
     Syed had noted that a Jewish officer successfully challenged the department’s beard regulations in court in 2013.
     “I’m excited to be back at work,” Syed said in a statement, calling his settlement a “crucial first step in addressing an important and growing concern of officers of many different faiths.”
     “I am hopeful that the department’s new policy will in fact allow myself and other officers to wear our beards at a reasonable length without the fear of retaliation or hostility,” he added.
     In a letter to the court, the New York City Law Department confirmed that Syed returned to full duty on Thursday morning, and requested the indefinite adjournment of the upcoming July hearing.
     “The parties are continuing their discussions regarding all aspects of this matter and working towards a resolution,” a law department spokesman wrote in an email.
     Syed’s attorney hailed the development as a victory.
     “This lawsuit forced the NYPD to correct its course — which it has started to do by reinstating Mr. Syed and agreeing to review its appearance policy,” Moskovitz said in a statement. “We expect the NYPD will ultimately adopt new policies, particularly with regard to accommodations for officers like Mr. Syed, who wear a beard as a part of their faith.”
     His co-counsel Luna Droubi said her client should not have been asked to make an “impossible choice: exercising his sincerely held religious beliefs or losing the job he loves.”
     “He no longer has to make that choice,” she added in her statement.
     Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims, began on June 6. It ends July 5.

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