For eleven years, John Brooks has served the people of Utica, New York as a firefighter and paramedic. Brooks’ commitment to public service follows the example set by his father who served UFD for forty-one years, including thirteen years as fire chief.
Brooks’ service as a firefighter has been marked by heroism and compassion. He is credited with swimming into a canal and diving down into the water to try to find a young girl involved in a car accident, as well as donating personal money to clothe a family who lost everything in a house fire.
Brooks is also a deeply committed Nazirite. In 2014—on the day of the Feast of John the Baptist, another Nazirite—Brooks took a personal vow to God not to cut the hair of his head, among other things, based on instruction in the Biblical book of Numbers.
“The day I took my Nazirite vow was one of the most important days of my life,” said Brooks. “Being forced to cut my hair would devastate me and violate my covenant with God.”
Seven months passed without Brooks cutting his hair when his superior first commented to Brooks that he needed a haircut. The City’s employee handbook allows firefighters to request religious accommodations, yet UFD has denied each of Brooks’ requests. Even though several UFD firefighters have longer hair than Brooks, his superiors demanded that Brooks wear a baseball cap or, more recently, a hair net at all times while on duty. On one occasion, the hair net became entangled with Brooks’ oxygen mask at an active fire scene and forced Brooks to remove his oxygen mask and lose sight of his partner while inside a burning building.
“My hair has never interfered with my job,” said Brooks. “The hair net I was forced to wear, however, was a safety hazard. I have seen the department make accommodations for people of other faiths. I just want to be treated like everyone else.”
First Liberty filed an amended complaint in federal court on Brooks’ behalf in October 2017.
“It is clear that the city is using ‘safety’ as an excuse to single out and humiliate a heroic firefighter because of his religious beliefs since no one else with hair longer than John’s have been questioned,” said Roger Byron, Senior Counsel for First Liberty. “This is a case of religious discrimination, and we will continue to defend Mr. Brooks’ liberties until they are fully restored.”
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For Immediate Release: October 26, 2017
Contact: Lacey McNiel, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Firefighter John Brooks. Photo Credit: First Liberty Institute)
New York Firefighter Singled Out for Religious Discrimination
First Liberty attorneys say fire department is using ‘safety’ as a façade for religious discrimination
UTICA, N.Y.—Today, First Liberty Institute and attorney Tom Marcelle, on behalf of client and New York firefighter John Brooks, filed an amended federal civil complaint against the City of Utica for violating federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Brooks, a devout Nazirite, made a personal vow to God to refrain from cutting the hair on his head based on Biblical instruction in the book of Numbers. The Utica Fire Department (UFD) has refused to grant Brooks a religious accommodation from its grooming standards and ordered Brooks either to cut his hair or wear a hair net at all times while on duty. The hair net caused a life-threatening safety risk to Brooks when it interfered with his oxygen mask while Brooks was inside a structure fire. UFD routinely allows female firefighters, with identical equipment and job descriptions, to have their hair longer than Brooks’ hair.
“Mr. Brooks just wants to be treated fairly, like everyone else,” said Roger Byron, Senior Counsel for First Liberty. “The city has singled out and mistreated a heroic firefighter because of his religious beliefs. This is a textbook case of religious discrimination.”
Brooks has served with UFD for eleven years, during which time the city has granted religious accommodations for firefighters of other faiths. The city’s employee handbook allows employees to seek religious accommodation for personal grooming standards. The city tries to excuse its unlawful discrimination by citing safety concerns about Brooks’ hair length. However, the city allows other firefighters in the department to have hair longer than his. Brooks could not obey his conscience and follow the city’s unreasonable directives—directives that placed his life in danger.
“It is awful to be placed in a position of choosing between your convictions and your job,” said Brooks. “I love being a firefighter. All I want is for the City to accommodate my religious beliefs and treat me the same as other firefighters with long hair.”
Along with First Liberty, Brooks is represented by Albany attorney, Tom Marcelle who, in 2001, argued and won Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 US 98 (2001), at the U.S. Supreme Court, a landmark religious freedom case and one of the most important Supreme Court decisions of the last 50 years.
To learn more, visit FirstLiberty.org/Brooks.
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at email@example.com or by calling 972-941-4453.
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Jeremy Dys, Deputy General Counsel outlines the case – Download
Jeremy Dys, Deputy General Counsel discusses religious discrimination against Brooks – Download
Jeremy Dys, Deputy General Counsel on what Brooks is seeking – Download
B-Roll of John Brooks – Download
John Brooks on why he became a firefighter – Download
John Brooks on his vow to God and the City’s response to his religious convictions – Download
John Brooks on how his employer’s religious discrimination made him feel – Download
John Brooks on how he just wants to be treated fairly – Download
Dear Coach Kennedy,
I would like to say thank you. Your dedication to your faith and your commitment to the positive education of our youth is truly admirable. I am deeply grateful for your military service and for taking a courageous stance in protecting religious liberty rights for teachers and administrators.
If our First Amendment protects a player’s right to kneel in protest, it certainly protects your right to kneel in prayer.
I was shocked to learn that Bremerton High School suspended you after denying your request to continue your wholesome practice of giving thanks after football games.
The Bremerton School District’s actions violate the law and send the wrong message to coaches, young people, our communities, and our nation — a message of hostility to religious freedom and intolerance toward personal religious expression.
Please know that you are not alone in this difficult time — I support you and First Liberty as you continue to fight for religious freedom! Our schools need more coaches like you, our country needs more citizens like you, and our world needs more people like you.✖