People of all faiths and none work tirelessly to protect our communities. Yet on November 7th, 2022, a group of firefighters and paramedics filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia for violating their religious freedom. The employees had been removed from field duty in March 2020 after the city issued a new policy that would require them to shave their facial hair. The employees, who keep beards in accordance with their faiths, refused and were prevented from doing their regular duties as a result.
The freedom to practice one’s faith, no matter your occupation, is protected under the Constitution. Yet the courts recognize that complicated situations do arise where a government policy may still be necessary, even when it impacts religious freedom. Through this suit, DC firefighters are asking for an appropriate accommodation.
The City’s Obligation to Make Religious Accommodations
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) ensures that people of all faiths can seek religious accommodations when necessary. RFRA, and religious freedom more broadly, protects personal religious expression and practice – so long as it does not harm third parties. While the Act has been weaponized and used by some as a means to discriminate, the original intention of protecting religious freedom remains at its core.
The firefighters and paramedics argue that the District of Columbia has an obligation under RFRA to review the religious liberty claims of these employees, and either provide accommodations or further explanation if the accommodations are denied. In Potter v. District of Columbia, a U.S. District Court case decided in 2007, Judge Robertson sided with the employees over a similar issue. The situation was so similar that some of the employees in the 2022 suit were also plaintiffs in the 2007 case. The employees’ lawyers in 2022 argued that the city was already required to accommodate their right to keep their beards in Potter, and is now blatantly violating the court’s order. The city must respond to this suit by December 16th, 2022.
Protecting Free Exercise for People of All Faiths
Religious freedom is one of several fundamental rights outlined in the First Amendment. It includes two complementary protections – freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Freedom of religion protects our ability to follow the religious tradition of our choice, or no religion at all, without facing discrimination or punishment. Freedom from religion prevents the government from codifying religious beliefs into law, favoring religion over non-religion, or giving special treatment to adherents of one faith and not others.
These protections are necessary to ensure religion and democracy thrive. But our nation has not yet achieved its promise that all people, no matter what they believe, enjoy the same freedoms. Cases like the DC firefighters’ and paramedics’ represent the unfinished work that still must be done to realize an inclusive vision of religious freedom.
Learn more about our work to advance true religious freedom.