ACLU, Union Vow to Fight Fire Chief's Decision (The Washington Post) 04/04/01
Chief's Policy Brings 2 More Suspensions
D.C. Firefighter Says He Won't Cut His Hair
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 4, 2001; Page B05
Two more D.C. fire department employees -- one with waist-length dreadlocks and the other with a long beard -- were sent home yesterday for two days, raising to four the number of workers suspended for violating a newly enforced rule regarding hair length, officials said.
Last week, the department's 1,900 employees, including about 1,400 firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics, were informed they would face discipline, beginning Monday, for violating a four-year-old policy prohibiting facial hair of more than a quarter-inch; no hair can be longer than a few inches. Chief Ronnie Few said he is enforcing the rule for safety and appearance.
The second employee suspended yesterday, an emergency medical technician, was not identified. If suspended workers don't trim their hair before returning to work, they will be suspended, with pay, for 10 more days. A third violation "could lead to possible termination," said Alan Etter, a fire department spokesman.
The firefighter suspended yesterday, Willie Gafney, covers his dreadlocks with a skullcap. He said he won't cut them for anyone.
"I plan to fight this," Gafney, 30, said at Station 20 at 4300 Wisconsin Ave. NW, where he works. "My child asked me why I was home during the day, and I had to tell him, 'I'm home because the fire chief doesn't like my hair.' "
Gafney, a 10-year firefighter, cites a Nazirite vow taken nine years ago that prevents him from cutting his hair. "I don't think [Few] has the right to force his opinion on other people if it's going to violate their religious beliefs," Gafney said.
Few said yesterday that religious expression should not supersede safety. He added he fears that some firefighters will not be able to fit their hair under their fire helmets or that a long beard could make it difficult to get a proper seal under the face masks firefighters connect to their airpacks.
"I don't feel like I'm . . . doing anything but what's right," Few said.
The D.C. firefighters union and the American Civil Liberties Union are considering challenging the suspensions in court. Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the area chapter of the ACLU, wrote a letter to Few this week citing a precedent in the case.
In 1991, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the fire department's grooming regulations, which prohibited beards except for sufferers of "razor bumps," had no safety benefits and discriminated on the basis of appearance.
That ruling stemmed from a case that began in 1980, when firefighter Brian Kennedy was suspended after he didn't trim his handlebar mustache sufficiently. The judge's order overturned a 1983 ruling by the city administrator's office that upheld the rules.
Few said he's not overly worried about the Kennedy case. He said a fire department attorney and the city's corporation counsel "gave us the go-ahead to enforce the policy," which was amended in 1997.
Vincent Kyle, 30, who works at Station 32 at 2425 Irving St. SE, stood with Gafney yesterday outside Station 20. Kyle said his own shoulder-length hair has not created a safety hazard in the 10 years he's been fighting fires. "We've being doing fine for all this time," Kyle said. "Much longer than the chief has been here."
Kyle said that when he goes to work tomorrow, he expects to be told to leave. "I'm concerned about my son and how I will care for him if I don't have a job," said Kyle, who added that he keeps his hair long as part of his Rastafarian faith. "But I want him to know that discrimination of any kind is wrong."