Police Department Not Required to Accommodate Officer's Request to Wear Religious Dress with Uniform

This post was written by Joel S. Barras, Scott E. Blissman, and Daniel J. Moore.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Philadelphia Police Department did not violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it denied an officer’s request to wear a headscarf, a head covering traditionally worn by Muslim women, while in uniform and on duty. According to the court’s ruling, the Department successfully demonstrated that allowing the officer to wear a headscarf on duty would impose an undue hardship on the Department.

Background

The dispute began in 2003 when the officer requested permission from her commanding officer to wear a headscarf while on duty. The officer’s request was denied pursuant to the Department’s strictly-enforced internal uniform policy. The officer subsequently filed a complaint of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”). While these administrative agencies investigated her complaints, the officer continued to report to work wearing a headscarf, eventually resulting in a temporary 13-day suspension, without pay, for insubordination.

In 2005, the officer brought suit against the city of Philadelphia in federal district court, alleging religious discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, holding that the officer could not be reasonably accommodated without imposing an undue burden on the city.

The Third Circuit’s Decision

The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. The court explained that an employer is not required to accommodate a religious belief if it can show that the requested accommodation would cause an undue burden on the employer and its business. In this context, an accommodation constitutes an “undue hardship” if it would impose more than a de minimis cost on the employer. Here, the city presented testimony that strict enforcement of the Department’s uniform policy was
“critically important to promote the image of a disciplined, identifiable and impartial police force by maintaining the Philadelphia Police Department uniform as a symbol of neutral government authority, free from expressions of personal religion, bent or bias.” Such uniformity encouraged officers to subordinate their personal preferences in favor of the overall policing mission, and conveyed a sense of authority and competency both inside the Department and to the general public. Accordingly, the court found that the city had shown that wearing a religious headscarf would impose an undue burden on the Department, and that the district court’s grant of summary judgment was proper.

Practical Effects for Pennsylvania Public Employers

The Third Circuit’s decision is consistent with a number of federal courts holding that police departments are not required to accommodate an officer’s request to wear religious garb while on duty. For example, a court in another jurisdiction has held that a police department was not required to accommodate an officer’s request to wear a gold cross pin on his uniform in contravention with the department’s no-pins policy. It is important that police departments have a detailed, written uniform and appearance policy. Such policies can and should address tattoos and piercings that would be visible on an officer while in his or her uniform. Additionally, it is important that police departments apply any such policy consistently, without exceptions. A court would likely rule differently had the department provided medical exemptions for a particular aspect of the uniform policy or grooming standards (e.g., a “no-beard” policy), while refusing religious exemptions. As a practical matter, this uniform and appearance policy should be included with your job application materials to avoid situations where a newly appointed officer claims that he or she was unaware of work rules on appearance. If your police department does not have such a policy, contact one of the attorneys at Reed Smith to obtain a model policy.

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