Earlier this month, a born-again Christian firefighter from New Jersey sued his city and fire department leaders for making him shave his beard… saying it violates his religious beliefs.
Alexander Smith (above) claimed the rule violated both “his religious freedoms under the First Amendment and… the New Jersey Civil Rights.”
The reaction from the other side was, “It’s about safety.”
… Facial hair can affect the seal of the breathing apparatus mask firefighters wear while battling blazes.
As an air mask technician, a role Smith has had since 2015, he has never had to enter a burning building, use the self-contained breathing apparatus mask or wear a mask of any kind, according to the lawsuit. When he does respond to a fire, it is “solely for the purpose of refilling SCBA air bottles,” according to the lawsuit.
In short, there was a chance he might have to appear at the scene of a fire even if he wasn’t running into the building. That was the concern. He wasn’t just working behind a desk.
Furthermore, there’s really no Christian “rule” that said growing a beard of a certain length is a requirement for the faith, though Smith said his church encouraged beard-growing since many prophets in the Bible had one.
The good news is that a U.S,. District Judge has thrown out his lawsuit. Part of what swayed the judge was the testimony of Fire Chief Scott Evans:
…He detailed general financial problems confronting Atlantic City. He then described recent changes to the [Atlantic City Fire Department]. For example, ACFD has not hired for several years, and the number of firefighters decreased from nearly 260 firefighters in 2014 to 185 firefighters today. As a result, all active members, even Air Mask Technicians, are expected to be fit tested and able to engage in suppression fire in the event of an emergency. Any ACFD member not annually fit tested, he added, was due to an oversight from the large reduction in force. Chief Evans also claimed that he was unaware of any mask that could accommodate facial hair. He explained that even altering a single mask for Plaintiff’s accommodation would cause the Department to make extensive changes to all ACFD masks.
Deputy Chief Thomas Culleny Jr. also said in a trial that they tried to get equipment to accommodate Smith, but there were no options that “comported with state respiratory regulations.”
Ultimately, the judge said Smith had no case:
… the Court found that Plaintiff did have a sincerely held religious belief and had shown irreparable injury based upon the risk to those beliefs. Plaintiff, however, did not provide sufficient evidence to show a likelihood of success on the merits of his claims. The Court was further guided by several facts that appeared to undercut Plaintiff’s claims.
There was just no evidence of religious discrimination — because this was always about safety.
Once again, a claim of Christian persecution was thrown out after examining the facts.
(via Religion Clause. Portions of this article were published earlier)