A Muslim NYPD officer suspended this week because of a one-inch-long beard he wears for religious reasons filed a federal class action suit on Wednesday challenging the department’s no-beards policy.
Masood Syed, a 10-year veteran Pakistani-American cop working as a law clerk in the NYPD’s disciplinary trials division, said in his suit that as a Sunni Muslim he is “religiously obliged to grow and maintain a beard” and that the one-millimeter-long beard allowed as a religious accommodation was inadequate.
“It’s 2016,” said his lawyer, Joshua Moskovitz. “The NYPD needs to open its eyes to the pluralism of the city we live in. There are hundreds of officers who, for religious reasons, must wear beards and the NYPD must accommodate them.”
In a brief hearing on Wednesday, Manhattan U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel found that Syed had a likelihood of success, and ordered the department to keep paying him and providing benefits pending a fuller hearing on a preliminary injunction on July 8.
NYPD policy forbids beards, but allows them to be worn by undercover officers and also permits one-millimeter of facial hair as an accommodation for officers with a certified medical or religious need, according to the suit.
But the suit by Syed, 32, of Queens, said the rule has always been unevenly enforced, with many officers sporting longer beards. It said he wore his beard at a length of a half-inch to an inch since joining the force until Tuesday, when he went in for a new ID card and was suspended for refusing to shave it off.
The lawsuit said the NYPD has continued to enforce the no-beard policy despite a 2013 state court ruling in the case of Fishel Litzman, a Lubavitcher Jewish officer, that it violated religious protections in New York’s Constitution.
In the hearing before Castel, a city lawyer argued that the policy was needed so that gas masks can fit tightly on officers’ faces. But Syed’s suit said he had been certified for the gas mask while wearing his beard at its current length.
It asserted that the real reason for the policy was articulated by former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly in an interview about Litzman’s case when he said, “The public has a certain image of the police officer, and we need to maintain that philosophy.”
The lawsuit said Syed, who has passed the bar exam and is about to get his law license, believes the NYPD intends to keep him on suspension and eventually fire him if he doesn’t trim the beard.
The city’s law department declined to comment on the lawsuit. The NYPD did not respond to an email seeking comment.