July 20, 2005 – In what appears to be the first decision related to a law granting Pennsylvanians broad religious freedoms, a pleas court judge found that the Philadelphia Fire Department violated the rights of a Muslim employee when it suspended him from duty for refusing to shave his beard.
On February 2 of this year, the fire department suspended Curtis DeVeaux without pay for violating a regulation on shaving, despite formal and informal efforts by DeVeaux to impress upon his superiors that it was against his religious beliefs to do so, the American Civil Liberties Union noted in a court petition asking for injunctive relief filed with the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia in May.
As previously reported by The NewStandard, the department banned beards twenty years ago because facial hair could compromise the seal on firefighting masks in use at that time. The rule remains on the books even though the department now uses a different kind of mask that does not rely on such a seal, and DeVeaux charges that present-day enforcement of the rule amounts to discrimination.
Judge Joseph A. Dych granted the ACLUâ€™s request, pending a full hearing before a Commonwealth Court. In issuing the injunction, Dych found that DeVeaux was likely to win the case, which was brought under the Religious Freedom Protection Act of Pennsylvania, and said that "greater injury will result if this petition is denied than if injunctive relief is granted."
According to the Legal Intelligencer, this was the first court case dealing with the 2002 Pennsylvania State law granting citizens greater religious freedom. The law has been little commented upon, though at least one other suit â€“ a challenge to the stateâ€™s home schooling laws â€“ is currently winding through the Commonwealth Courts.