In 2007, after years of battling fires – and the District of Columbia – several DC paramedics and firefighters of different religious faiths won a permanent injunction under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act against a DC policy requiring that they be clean shaven. Each plaintiff wears a beard in accordance with the tenets of his Muslim or Jewish faith. They were represented at the time by the ACLU, and the injunction was affirmed on appeal.
But, in March 2020, District officials instituted a new safety bulletin once again requiring its first responders to be clean shaven. The policy plainly had nothing to do with COVID-19, as it was drafted weeks before the pandemic began, and it related to firefighting equipment, not COVID face coverings. Even so, those who would not shave for religious reasons were moved to “operations,” removing them from their normal duty. Adding injury to injury, the less desirable positions also meant they received lower pay and fewer training and promotion opportunities.
Even though the new safety bulletin concerned the exact same policy and equipment that were subject to our clients’ 2007 permanent injunction – and even though our clients all reminded their supervisors that they were protected by the injunction – DC ignored the injunction, ordered them to shave, and removed them from the field. DC didn’t ask the court for permission; it unilaterally and flagrantly violated a federal court order protecting our clients’ religious rights.
The District’s flagrant disobedience lasted until October 2021, after First Liberty and Covington & Burling LLP came to the first responders’ aid and insisted that the District follow the law. But even though our clients have finally been returned to the field, the District has refused to compensate them for the harm that its year-and-a-half disobedience of the federal court order caused.
In November 2022, First Liberty Institute and the law firm Covington & Burling filed a motion for contempt against the District on behalf of the firefighters and paramedics. The motion claims that the city violated the permanent injunction issued in 2007 and must pay for the harms that it caused.
Jordan Pratt, Senior Counsel with First Liberty said, “The District of Columbia has been ordered by a federal court to protect the religious liberty rights of paramedics and firefighters, and specifically, to allow our clients to keep their beards while on duty. The District plainly violated that court order for over a year and a half, and it has refused to take responsibility for its violation. It’s past time for the District to make our clients whole and to recognize that it is not above the law.”