Bearded DC Fire and EMS employees file court challenge — again

Four D.C. firefighters and paramedics are asking a federal judge to throw out a 2020 city policy restricting facial hair, which they say violates an earlier court order that protects their rights to wear a beard for religious reasons.

This week, D.C. Fire and EMS employees Steven Chasin, Calvert Potter, Jasper Sterling and Hassan Umrani filed a motion asking the District be held in contempt of court for not following the previous ruling.

In 2007, a federal judge ordered the District to allow Chasin, Potter, Sterling, and Umrani to maintain facial hair, as part of their Muslim and Jewish religious expression.

In 2020, the District began enforcing a new policy during the COVID-19 pandemic that, with the need for tight-fitting N95 masks and air-purifying respirators, “the presence of facial hair interferes with the mask’s seal.”

According to the filing, in March 2020, the firefighters were taken out of the field, and transferred to office jobs, where they earned less money, and had fewer opportunities to earn overtime, holiday, weekend and night-differential pay.

The plaintiffs claim they weren’t allowed to return to field duty until August 2021, 18 months after they had been reassigned, after refusing to shave their beards. They say the action violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“This decision to ignore a binding court order is merely the latest step in the Department’s multi-decade crusade to compel District firefighters and paramedics to conform to the Department’s clean-shave preference, without regard for their religious liberties,” according to the motion.

The firefighters are asking the court to hold the District in civil contempt, and to order the city to compensate the plaintiffs for the money they lost during their reassignments.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon is giving the District until Dec. 19 to respond to the motion.

WTOP is seeking comment from DC’s Office of the Attorney General, which represents the District.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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