Terminated Philly Recruit Alleges Beard-Related Religious Discrimination

A recruit firefighter who was dismissed from the Philadelphia Fire Department’s fire academy in 2019 for refusing to shave his beard, has filed suit in US District Court alleging religious discrimination. Malcolm Lindsay filed suit alleging religious discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Lindsay, who identifies himself in the complaint as a Muslim, started the academy on February 19, 2019, and was terminated on March 22, 2019. As explained in the complaint:

  • On or about February 19, 2019, Plaintiff Lindsay reported to the Defendant’s workplace for his first day of work wearing cuffed pants above the ankle and had facial hair, in observance of his religion (Islam).
  • On the same day, Hector Sierra (“Sierra), Fire Captain, informed Plaintiff Lindsay that his pants and facial hair were in violation of the Defendant’s dress code and grooming policy.
  • Plaintiff Lindsay informed Sierra that he required a religious accommodation and was told to speak with Michael Roelingoff (“Roelinghoff”), Fire Lieutenant and Robert Jeter (“Jeter”), Fire Captain.
  • On the same date, Plaintiff Lindsay informed Jeter and Roelinghoff of his religious observances and that wearing pants below the ankle and shaving his face would be in direct conflict with his religious beliefs.
  • Accordingly, Plaintiff Lindsay requested that the Defendant allow him to wear his pants above the ankle and maintain his facial hair as a religious accommodation.
  • In response thereto, Jeter denied Plaintiff Lindsay’s request for religious accommodation and demanded he remove his facial hair and comply with the fire academy’s dress code or face the termination of his employment.
  • On or about February 20, 2019, Jeter and Roelinghoff again engaged Plaintiff Lindsay in a discussion regarding his failure to comport to the Defendant’s dress code.
  • Plaintiff Lindsay informed the Defendant that he would have his pants professionally hemmed at his own expense, and the Defendant ultimately acceded to said request.
  • On or about February 21, 2019, Plaintiff Lindsay passed the OSHA Fit Test, which certified that his face mask was able to create an appropriate seal even with his facial hair.
  • On or about March 15, 2019, Jeter, Roelinghoff, and Thor (“Thor”), Fire Lieutenant, met with Plaintiff Lindsay under the pretense of resolving a “paper work issue.”
  • Curiously, however, Jeter took said meeting as an opportunity to suggest that Plaintiff Lindsay was being untruthful regarding his religious observance of growing facial hair.
  • On or about March 22, 2019, Roelinghoff and Sierra again riddled Plaintiff Lindsay with a barrage of questions regarding his growth of facial hair.
  • Again, Plaintiff Lindsay informed the Defendant of his religious observance.
  • In response, the Defendant ordered Plaintiff Lindsay to change out of his gear and wait to speak to the Deputy Chief.
  • On the same date, in retaliation for Plaintiff Lindsay’s numerous requests for a religious accommodation, the Defendant terminated Plaintiff Lindsay’s employment, falsely claiming that compliance with the grooming policy was necessary to “maintain compliance with OSHA safety standards regarding the seal of the self-contained breathing apparatus.”
  • Telling of the Defendant’s discriminatory intent, it completely disregarded the fact that Plaintiff Lindsay had passed the OSHA Fit Test.

The suit seeks damages, but does not request reinstatement. Here is a copy of the complaint:

By the way, this is not the first case against Philadelphia on the beard v. fit test issue. The city won a case brought by a Muslim firefighter in 2005 alleging a violation of the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act:

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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