ACLU, Union Vow to Fight Fire Chief's Decision
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ACLU, Union Vow to Fight Fire Chief's Decision

Fire Chief Enforcing D.C. Grooming Rules

By Arthur Santana
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 4, 2001; Page B1

It took D.C. firefighter Shannon Lyons a year and a half to grow the beard that hangs down about an inch from his chin. He wears the beard, he said, to express his devotion to Islam.

But D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few said Lyons must follow a different calling: a standard of safety and appearance. Shave the beard down to a quarter-inch, he has told Lyons, or don't bother coming in to work.

"You either cut it or find another fire deparment to work for," Few told Lyons yesterday outside Fire Station 16 at 13th and K streets NW.

"I won't," Lyons said. "Muhammad, the prophet, says . . . "

"Then, don't you come to work then," Few shot back, moving closer to Lyons. "Don't you ever challenge my authority again like this."

The heated exchange followed Few's announcement last week that he will begin enforcing a four-year-old department rule requiring District firefighters to wear their hair and beards at acceptable lengths.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the firefighters union said they will fight Few's decision. The fire chief said he is implementing the policy in an effort to "increase discipline, uniformity, safety and esprit de corp throughout the department."

At least two firefighters were suspended yesterday without pay because of their beards, and inspections will continue all week, said fire department spokesman Alan Etter.

"I won't back down on this issue," Few said. "If something happens to [Lyons] while on the job, I don't want to have to call his family and tell them that it was because of his beard that he couldn't seal his face mask."

Few's order, which also applies to female firefighters, says hair shall not extend below the midpoint of the shirt collar or fall below the eyebrows. Ponytails, pigtails and ducktails are prohibited. And the order says beards must be no more than a quarter-inch in length.

ACLU and union officials say firefighters with long beards or long hair have succeeded at their jobs for years without compromising their safety or anyone else's.

"These firefighters have no safety problem with their hair," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the area chapter of the ACLU. "And so it seems to simply be that the chief wants all firefighters to have the appearance that he thinks is appropriate."

Two D.C. firefighters who say they wear dreadlocks because of their Rastafarian faith have contacted the ACLU, Spitzer said. Lyons said he intends to join them in challenging Few's order and fully expects to be suspended when he goes to work today.

"Not only do I abide by department laws, but I also must abide by the laws that Allah has prescribed for Muslims to follow," said Lyons, 26, who has been a D.C. firefighter since 1992. To wear a long beard, he said, is to emulate Muhammad and become spiritually closer to him.

Few said that in addition to his concerns about safety, he wants the public to view firefighters as clean-cut, professional-looking men and women.

"It is important for our members to project a positive public image that is consistent with the wearing of uniforms," Few said in his memo to department employees announcing the hair-length policy.

It's not the first time the ACLU has battled the fire department on the issue, Spitzer said. In 1995, the group challenged the grooming regulations that were then on the department's books, which resulted in a decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals "that the regulation banning long hair and beards . . . did not serve the Department's asserted purposes of safety," Spitzer wrote in a letter to Few yesterday.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with two Newark police officers who refused to shave their beards because of their Sunni Muslim faith.

The justices left in place a lower court ruling that found that the Newark Police Department had violated the officers' constitutional rights to freedom of religion by prohibiting beards and goatees.

Last year, a New York State Park Police officer who is Muslim and was suspended for wearing a beard was paid $25,700 in back wages and rehired at his old salary.

Under the settlement, the department also agreed to revise regulations to specify that officers may seek exemptions to the force's no-beard rule on religious grounds.

2001 The Washington Post Company


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