Kenneth Wallace began working for the Philadelphia Police Department in December 1996. He became a practicing Muslim in 1998; in May 2003, Wallace submitted a memorandum to his supervisor in which he indicated that he would begin to wear a beard in observance of his religious beliefs.
Beginning in 1999, the Department implemented Directive 78, an internal policy which set forth the Department’s requirements and prohibitions for all police personnel regarding uniforms and personal appearance. Directive 78 explicitly prohibited beards and goatees, “except when consistent with assignment.” Wallace began to wear his beard without first obtaining the permission of the Police Commissioner; he was admonished and disciplined for the violations.
At the time Wallace began growing his beard in or about May 2003, Directive 78 had an exemption to the restriction on facial hair for beards worn for medical purposes. Under the medical exception, the Police Department permitted personnel to grow a beard where the City’s Medical Director confirmed that the employee had a medical condition that prevented him from shaving. If a waiver was authorized, facial hair would have to be kept trimmed and neat, not to exceed one-quarter inch in length.
When matters came to a head, the Department authorized Wallace to grow a quarter-inch beard. Wallace sued, contending that his religious beliefs forbade any cutting of the beard, and contending that the Department’s policies violated the freedom of religion granted him under the First Amendment.
A federal district court rejected Wallace’s claims. The Court found that the City was required to demonstrate that it made a good-faith effort to reasonably accommodate Wallace’s religious belief, or that such an accommodation would impose undue hardship upon it. In the Court’s view, the City met this burden.
The Court held that the Department “amended Directive 78 to allow Department employees to wear beards in observance of their religious beliefs consistent with the previously established medical exception. To require the Department to allow employees to grow beards beyond one-quarter inch would indeed impose the undue hardship of sacrificing the Department’s commitment to a neutral appearances policy.
“It is very clear that to permit employees to mark themselves uniquely in the name of religious accommodation, at the cost of maintaining an employer’s neutrality and uniformity, may ask too much. Here, the Department did accommodate Wallace such that he was allowed to grow a beard in the same manner as an individual with a medical exemption. This policy preserved the Department’s emphasis on presenting a united front while respecting the religious needs of its employees. What is at stake is the Philadelphia Police Department’s perception of its impartiality by citizens of all races and religions whom the police are charged to serve and protect. If not for the strict enforcement of Directive 78, the essential values of impartiality, religious neutrality, uniformity and the subordination of personal preference would be severely damaged to the detriment of the Police Department.”
Wallace v. City of Philadelphia, 2010 WL 1730850 (E.D. Pa. 2010).
This article appears in the October 2010 issue