Muslim Firefighter Challenges FDNY’s No Beard Rule

A Muslim FDNY firefighter who claims the city granted him a religious accommodation from its no beard requirement, and then without cause withdrew it last year, has filed a religious discrimination suit.

Steven Daniel filed suit this week in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York alleging the city’s refusal to continue to allow him to maintain “close-cropped facial hair” constitutes illegal religious discrimination under federal, state and city law. The suit names the city, Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro, Deputy Medical Officer Dr. Karen Hurwitz, and Deputy Medical Officer Dr. Shenecia Beecher.

According to the complaint:

  • Plaintiff is an African American male and practices a religion that requires he maintain facial hair.
  • Plaintiff’s faith requires him to maintain facial hair and he maintained facial hair for several years prior to becoming a firefighter.
  • Plaintiff continued to maintain close-cropped facial hair pursuant to his religious beliefs when he was hired by the FDNY and every day since.
  • At no point throughout his time as an employee of the FDNY did the FDNY require him to be clean shaven.
  • The FDNY maintains a clean-shave policy which requires firefighters to removal all facial hair.
  • Plaintiff requested an accommodation based upon his religious practices and was granted an accommodation by the Defendants.
  • The accommodation was granted in part due to the lack of hardship upon Defendants.
  • Specifically, Defendants told Plaintiff that the Bureau of Health Services informed the EEO office that he successfully passed the “mask fit” test with close-cropped facial hair.
  • Plaintiff passed this test each and every time it was administered.
  • Defendants Nigro, Hurwitz, and Beecher, without any notice, legitimate reason, or rational basis, unilaterally revoked his accommodation in May 2018, and told Plaintiff that he could no longer maintain any facial hair pursuant to new grooming policies.

This is the second FDNY suit over beards in the past 2 years. In 2018 four African American firefighters who have a medical condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae, allege that FDNY initially provided them with a reasonable accommodation, but without notice changed the policy as part of a deliberate effort to “thin the ranks of African American firefighters.” That suit is still active in the same court, the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

Note: The complaint does not identify Daniel’s religion, but news sources including the NY City Patch report that he is Muslim.

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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