Firefighters Seek Contempt Citation Against DC for Ban on Beards
WASHINGTON — Washington, D.C., firefighters are asking a federal judge for a contempt citation against the city for its ban on beards.
Firefighters argue the ban violates the freedom of religion of their Muslim and Jewish members.
The District of Columbia says the ban helps to ensure air masks are properly sealed across the faces of firefighters. Beards could leave a small space along the masks for smoke to enter and cause firefighters to cough and choke, making them less effective, according to D.C. attorneys.
Many fire departments have similar beard bans. Court challenges to the policy have elicited mixed results.
The petition for a contempt citation revives a previous D.C. court case. In 2007, firefighters won a permanent injunction against beard bans based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson wrote in his ruling that “evidence shows that a beard has never interfered with the ability of an FEMS (Fire and Emergency Medical Services) worker to do his duty.”
The issue is arising again because of an FEMS policy announced in February 2020. It says employees are prohibited from having “facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the facepiece and the face, … facial hair that interferes with the valve function, … [or] any condition that interferes with the face-to-face piece seal or valve function.”
Moreover, the masks are air purifiers that protect against contracting or spreading disease, such as COVID-19, according to the FEMS department.
The general order announcing the policy says it is intended “to protect and enhance the safety of all members and thereby support our ability to provide efficient fire and emergency medical services to the residents and visitors of the District of Columbia.”
The four firefighters seeking the contempt citation said they were reassigned to lower-paying jobs after they refused to comply with the policy.
They were restored to their previous jobs after they complained in letters to supervisors that the 2020 policy violates the 2007 injunction. Nevertheless, they seek compensatory damages for the difficulty the dispute created for them and loss of pay.
Tom can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @tramstack.