New York is facing a couple of religious challenges to barring recruits from the police academy. The first is a Jewish applicant who was fired for failing to cut his beard to a proscribed length. The second is a Muslim applicant who was fired for saying that he believed homosexuals should be locked up in answering a series of questions on a police form.
In the first case, Hasidic police recruit Fishel Litzman was barred from becoming an officer after he allegedly repeatedly failed to trim his beard. While officers are required to be clean shaven, an exception is made for beards grown for religious purposes.
Litzman, 38, is alleging religious discrimination and his lawyer said that the police academy was fully aware at the beginning of his training that “he would not trim his beard.” The case will be a difficult one given the accommodation for beards up to 1 (millimeter) in length. He would have to show that such a length is still unacceptable for Hasidim and that longer beards do not pose any problems for officers or departmental discipline. Litzman insists that “as an Orthodox Chasidic Jew it is absolutely forbidden in my religious beliefs to cut or trim my beard in any way.” That would allow a very long beard, which could raise issues of greater vulnerability during scuffles and arrests of the officer. However, it is a clear benefit to have officers who can better interact with insular cultural and religious groups in New York. It could prove to be an interesting case.
The case involving an applicant referred to as “Farhan Doe” could be more difficult. He believes that homosexuality is wrong — a view probably shared by a number of officers. He was barred from the academy after checking the “yes” box next to the question, “Do you believe that homosexuals should be locked up.” The question in my view is dangerously imprecise for free speech purposes. It is not clear whether the question is suggesting that he believes that he should arrest them as an officer or whether he was being asked about his personal views of gays. The applicant is currently an auxiliary cop in Brooklyn and says that he is willing to soften his views to be an officer.
The issue raises the difficult question on whether racist or prejudicial beliefs are a barrier to service if they are stated as a personal rather than a professional matter. The problem is magnified when we are discussing an issue upon which many citizens have a strong moral disagreement like homosexuality. If this man was saying that he believed gays could be arrested today for being gay, I have serious qualms about his potential as an officer. If he was saying that he personally would like to see homosexuality as a crime, it raises a different issue. The problem is that the question does not appear to distinguish between the two. I will not deny that I would prefer to have officer who do not hold such prejudicial views. However, there are free speech concerns raised in the controversy.
What do you think?