Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomWritten by Don Byrd

The U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with Philadelphia schools earlier this week, ending their lawsuit under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act against the school district for failing to accommodate an employee’s religious practices. Siddiq Abu-Bakr is a Muslim police officer who maintained a beard in accordance with his faith while working for the school district. After a 2010 change in policy left him not in compliance with grooming standards, Abu-Bakr requested and was denied an accommodation.

A DOJ press release announces the details of the agreement:

Under the terms of the United States’ settlement agreement, the school district has agreed to develop and distribute a revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy, which will include a procedure by which school police officers can request a religious accommodation.  The school district agreed to notify current and prospective school police officers that their religious accommodation requests will be considered on an individualized basis and that the school district will engage in an interactive process with the school police officers before denying any religious accommodation requests under the revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy.  In addition, the school district has agreed to provide mandatory training on religious accommodation to all supervisors, managers, human resources officials and other individuals who may receive inquiries from school police officers regarding the revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy.  The school district also will pay compensatory damages to two similarly-situated employees and will expunge all discipline related to the policy from their personnel files.

Prior to the change in policy, Abu-Bakr’s worked “with no indication that the beard diminished his performance” as a school police officer. Where an employee can do his job just as well while following his faith as he could otherwise, is there any reason to enforce a policy in a way that requires him to choose between his religious practices and his job?