NJ Firefighter Claims Religious Discrimination Over No Beard Rule

A New Jersey firefighter hoping to head off a disciplinary action over his refusal to shave his beard, has filed suit alleging religious discrimination.

Atlantic City firefighter Alexander Smith filed suit last week in US District Court for the District of New Jersey claiming the fire department’s rules prohibiting beards discriminates against him on account of his religion.

Smith claims that because his assignment as an air mask technician no longer requires him to don SCBA, he should be exempted from the no-beard requirement.  He also sought a temporary restraining order to block any discipline against him while the matter is being heard. From the complaint:

  • On January 3, 2019, Mr. Smith made a formal request to his supervisors at the ACFD for an accommodation to wear his beard because of his religious beliefs and convictions.
  • Smith provided religious letters and scriptural support for his request and explained that he no longer wears the mask that forms the basis of the security concern.
  • On February 15, 2019, Mr. Smith’s religious accommodation request was denied because of purported “overwhelming safety concerns” for Mr. Smith and his fellow firefighters.
  • Smith was informed that, if he did not appear for work clean shaven, he would be immediately suspended without pay and face termination.

The suit alleges a violation of Smith’s 1st Amendment rights and his rights under the New Jersey Constitution relating to religious freedom. He also alleges a violation of his due process rights, employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and discrimination under state law.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Smith v Atlantic City COMPLAINT

A hearing on Smith’s request for a temporary restraining order has been continued.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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