A Muslim woman who works as a Philadelphia police officer has lost her court battle to wear a religious head scarf on the job now that the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that forcing the department to accommodate her would compromise the city's interest in maintaining "religious neutrality" in its police force.
In Webb v. City of Philadelphia, a unanimous three-judge panel upheld a lower court's decision that said the police department's blanket policy forbidding officers from wearing any religious garb did not violate plaintiff Kimberlie Webb's religious-freedom rights.
Writing for the court, Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Anthony J. Scirica said he agreed with the city's argument that, without strict enforcement of its dress code, "the essential values of impartiality, religious neutrality, uniformity, and the subordination of personal preference would be severely damaged to the detriment of the proper functioning of the police department."
As a result, Scirica said, forcing the city to accommodate Webb by allowing her to violate the dress code would impose an "undue hardship" on the city.
Scirica was joined by 3rd Circuit Judges Theodore A. McKee and D. Brooks Smith.
The ruling upholds a June 2007 decision by Chief U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III that said the city's policy "reflects the fact that the police force is a paramilitary organization in which personal preferences must be subordinated to the overall policing mission which requires the utmost cooperation among all officers."
The police officer's uniform, Bartle said, "promotes that cooperation, fosters esprit de corps, emphasizes the hierarchical nature of the police force, and portrays a sense of authority to the public."
Wearing religious symbols or clothing, Bartle said, "would undermine these purposes and has the potential for interfering with effective law enforcement and even for causing harm to officers in a diverse community such as Philadelphia."
Prohibiting all religious symbols and attire, Bartle said, "helps to prevent any divisiveness on the basis of religion both within the force itself and when it encounters the diverse population of Philadelphia."
Bartle noted that former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson is also Muslim and had testified that the policy was essential for the police department to maintain "political and religious neutrality" so that it will be seen by the public as not favoring one group or faith over another.
Assistant City Solicitor Eleanor N. Ewing argued the case for the city. At the district court, the city was defended by attorneys Mark Foley, Jeffrey Pasek and George Voegele Jr. of Cozen O'Connor.
Webb also hired new lawyers for the appeal. Attorney Jeffrey M. Pollock of Fox Rothschild's Princeton, N.J., office, argued the case and was joined on the brief by attorney Abbey T. Harris of Fox Rothschild and law professor Seval Yildirim of Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif.
In her appeal, Webb was also supported by a coalition of civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union; the Council on American-Islamic Relations; the Islamic Society of North America; and the American Muslim Law Enforcement Officers Association. The groups filed an amicus brief authored by attorneys John S. Ghose and Fred T. Magaziner of Dechert.
Ghose and Magaziner argued in the brief that Bartle had relied on "outdated and faulty assumptions about the necessity of strict adherence to uniform codes, to the exclusion of religious accommodations, in modern military and police organizations."
More modern evidence, the amicus brief said, shows that granting religious accommodations has no negative effect on police discipline. The police departments in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles regularly grant requests similar to Webb's, the brief said, and in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Los Angeles department specifically invited Sikh Americans to join the force and assured them that their beards and turbans would be welcome.
According to court papers, Webb was hired as a police officer in 1995 and first raised the issue of wearing the Muslim scarf in 2003. In a memo to her commanding officer, Webb said her religion required that she cover her hair and requested permission to wear a headpiece called a khimar -- a traditional garment worn by Muslim women that covers the hair, forehead, sides of the head, neck, shoulders and chest, and sometimes extends down to the waist.
Webb said she intended to wear the lower portion of the khimar tucked inside her police shirt and to wear her police hat. Although some Muslim women also cover their faces, leaving only a slit for their eyes, Webb said she was not seeking to do so.
But the request was denied, and Webb was told that wearing a khimar would violate Philadelphia Police Department Directive 78, because nothing in the directive authorizes the wearing of religious symbols or clothing as part of the uniform.
Webb filed a complaint of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and, while her complaint was pending, decided to "take a stand" by appearing for work wearing a khimar. When she was asked to remove it, she refused and was sent home three days in a row, according to court papers.
Webb later returned to work in proper uniform but was brought up on disciplinary charges for insubordination and neglect of duty and for refusing to obey the order of her commanding officer.
After a hearing, a police board of inquiry found her guilty and recommended that she be suspended. Former Commissioner Johnson later suspended her for 13 days.