(by Alex Wigglesworth, Philadelphia Inquirer) – The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against the School District of Philadelphia, claiming a rule regulating the length of employees’ beards constitutes religious discrimination.

According to the suit filed Wednesday, the district in October 2010 instituted a new grooming policy [prohibiting] school police officers and security guards from having beards longer than a quarter of an inch.

School security officer Siddiq Abu-Bakr maintained an untrimmed beard for the 27 years he worked at the district, the suit states. Abu-Bakr is a member of the Islamic faith, which he says requires that he not cut his beard.

When Abu-Bakr notified his supervisor his religious beliefs precluded [made it impossible] for him to comply with the new policy, he was allegedly issued a written reprimand cautioning that continued violation of the rule would result in “further disciplinary action.”

According to the suit, Abu-Bakr provided district officials with a letter from his imam confirming his religion prohibited him from trimming his beard.  The district allegedly responded that his request was outweighed by “the integrity of the policy.”

The Department of Justice claims the district failed to consider Abu-Bakr’s request for “reasonable accommodation” to its grooming policy. The district instead denied the request without showing that [permitting him to wear his beard long and untrimmed] would cause [the school district] undue hardship, according to the suit.

Prosecutors said Abu-Bakr filed a religious discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which referred the matter to the Justice Department after determining there was reasonable cause to support the allegation.

Through the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the United States is seeking that the district be required to create new grooming policies that don’t discriminate against employees. The lawsuit is also seeking monetary damages for Abu-Bakr and others who are similarly situated.

“No employee should be forced to violate his religious beliefs in order to earn a living,” Spencer Lewis Jr., district director of the EEOC’s Philadelphia District Office, said in a statement. “Modifying a dress or grooming code is a reasonable accommodation that enables employees to keep working without posing an undue hardship on the employer.”

Representatives of the School District of Philadelphia could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.

Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from Thomson Reuters. Visit the website at Philly .com.


1. The first paragraph of a news article should answer the questions who, what, where and when. List the who, what, where and when of this news item. (NOTE: The remainder of a news article provides details on the why and/or how.)

2. What new policy did the Philadelphia school district implement in October 2010?

3. Why did veteran school security officer Siddiq Abu-Bakr tell his supervisor he was unable to comply with the new policy?

4. How did the school district respond to Mr. Abu-Bakr’s request for an exemption to the regulation?

5. a) For what reason is the U.S. Department of Justice suing the school district?
b) What does the Justice Department and EEOC want the school district to do?

6. The Department of Justice’s lawsuit says the school district is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (specifically Title VII, which prohibits discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin) and has a pattern of religious discrimination. The lawsuit states that Siddiq Abu-Bakr, and other individuals, could not comply with the district’s 2010 policy maintaining school police and security officers cannot have a beard longer than one-quarter inch. Abu-Bakr has had a long beard the entire 27 years he has worked in the district, the lawsuit said, and it has not interfered with his job performance. The lawsuit states his religious beliefs should exempt him from the grooming policy.

a) The Justice Department’s lawsuit says Mr. Abu-Bakr’s beard has not interfered with his job performance. The lawsuit claims the district failed to consider Abu-Bakr’s request for “reasonable accommodation” to its grooming policy. The school district did not ban beards, just long beards. Is that a reasonable accommodation? Explain your answer.

b) None of the articles reporting on this lawsuit explained the school district’s reason for implementing the grooming policy. For what reason might the district have implemented such a policy?

c) Do you think the Philadelphia school district implemented the policy to prohibit religious expression?

d) Do you think the policy is discrimination?  Are there any dress codes or grooming codes that should be followed for a school safety officer? Explain your answer.

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