A group of bearded firefighters has won the latest round in the long-running legal battle over a District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department policy that requires firefighters to be clean-shaven. The story began in 2001, when the department adopted a "grooming policy...
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A group of bearded firefighters has won the latest round in the long-running legal battle over a District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department policy that requires firefighters to be clean-shaven.
The story began in 2001, when the department adopted a "grooming policy" prohibiting firefighters from wearing beards. A group of firefighters challenged the rule and won a temporary injunction that prohibited the department from enforcing its rule. In 2005, the department issued a "safety policy," which led those same firefighters to seek a permanent injunction. The district court modified its injunction to require the department to offer the firefighters an opportunity to demonstrate that they could pass a fit test. It allowed the department to place those who could not pass the fit test on administrative duty. The 2005 decision also held that, "It is undisputed that firefighters who wear beards can safely operate the positive-pressure self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)…The disagreement in this case concerns the safe operation of negative-pressure masks by firefighters."
There followed a period of considerable legal wrangling. In 2007, a federal judge again ruled in favor of the firefighters/paramedics (see Fire Law, March 2006). The city appealed, but in March of this year, a federal appeals court affirmed the lower court's decision to grant a motion for summary judgment (Potter v. D.C.). The decision prohibits the department from enforcing its ban on beards against the firefighters involved in this lawsuit.
To understand the decision, it's important to understand some basic principles of civil procedure (this is a civil, not criminal case). A court will only consider cases in which there is a genuine dispute about either the relevant facts or applicable law. If the plaintiff believes that the defendant has not offered information disputing its claims, it may file a motion for "summary judgment." Basically, the plaintiff is saying that the defendant (in this case, the fire department) hasn't disputed the factual basis for the lawsuit. Summary judgment is awarded if the court finds no issues of "material" fact requiring a trial for their resolution. In applying the law to the undisputed facts, one party (the firefighters) is clearly entitled to judgment.
The summary-judgment process is meant to eliminate the need to try settled factual issues. It is a way for courts to manage their dockets so that they spend time only on cases in which there is a legitimate disagreement.
In the Potter case, the firefighters based their claim on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (42 U.S.C. 2000bb, et. sec.). That federal law prohibits the federal government (and the District of Columbia) from burdening a person's exercise of religion unless the government demonstrates that imposing such a burden:
- Is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
- Is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
The statute makes it clear that the government must demonstrate that it meets both of these requirements if it is going to impose a burden upon a person's exercise of religion. So, in this case, the department is required to demonstrate that:
- It has a compelling interest in restricting firefighters from wearing beards; and,
- The ban on beards is the least restrictive way to meet that interest.
Both parties agreed that the firefighters wear beards because of sincere religious beliefs, so the test is relevant. They also agreed that their safety and the safety of the people they assist is a compelling interest. But, the firefighters disagreed with the district's position that the clean-shaven requirement is the least restrictive means to protect the safety of firefighters.
Much of the lower court proceeding concerned the safety of air-purifying filters (APRs) and positive air-purifying filters. However, the court concluded that the clean-shaven policy was not sufficiently narrowly tailored because the department could redeploy bearded firefighters out of the zone in which APRs are required — either into areas where SCBA are required or into areas where no protection is needed.