Two New York corrections officers claim in a proposed class action lawsuit that they were unlawfully suspended after refusing to shave the beards they wore for religious reasons.
Among the defendants are the State of New York and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), who the plaintiffs claim maintain an “illegal practice of religious intolerance when it comes to facial hair.” According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs, who were employed as corrections officers at Fishkill Correctional Facility, received approval from DOCCS to wear facial hair for many years for medical reasons. Both men say they submitted accommodation requests to keep their beards because of a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae, which the case explains involves painful ingrown hairs caused by shaving.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs in March 2019 received a memo addressed to “all appropriate staff” in which they were informed that they were required to resubmit for their medical shaving exemption every six months. Upon doing so, both plaintiffs had their accommodations requests denied, the case says.
The lawsuit claims the two men then requested exemptions for religious reasons, as they are both practicing Muslims—a fact the plaintiffs say was well known by the defendants. Nevertheless, DOCCS denied their requests due to concerns that the plaintiffs would be unable to wear a respirator in case of an emergency at the facility, the case says. The lawsuit argues, however, that the DOCCS’s respirator policy only applies to those employed in “clean-shaven posts”—certain positions at DOCCS facilities that require employees to wear respirators. Neither of the plaintiffs had ever been employed in a clean-shaven post nor had ever been required to wear a respirator, the suit claims. Further, the plaintiffs point out that the DOCCS had permitted them to wear beards for “more than a decade” and never expressed safety or security concerns.
“There is no actual threat to safety or security for officers in clean-shaven posts to have facial hair, because there are security staff at Fishkill with beards who work on clean-shaven posts,” the complaint argues. “Even if it was necessary for security staff on clean-shaven posts not to have facial hair, there are sufficient security staff assigned to Fishkill to cover the clean-shaven posts.”
The plaintiffs argue that DOCCS’ denial of their accommodation requests was religious discrimination and a violation of their Constitutional rights.