A New Jersey appeals court has reinstated a suit against the state Department of Corrections claiming failure to accommodate the religious practices of a trainee who declined to follow DOC rules requiring the shaving of facial hair.
The Appellate Division on Monday said the trainee’s lawsuit, alleging violations under the state Law Against Discrimination, should not have been dismissed on summary judgment.
Judges Thomas Sumners Jr. and Robert Gilson remanded the case, directing the motion judge to develop a more complete record detailing the DOC’s facial hair policies, and any moves it may have made to accommodate the religious beliefs of plaintiff Marven Roseus.
“There is no record established that the DOC acted in ‘a bona fide effort’ or that it is ‘unable to reasonably accommodate’ plaintiff’s religious practice without ‘undue hardship,’” the appeals court said, quoting language from the LAD.
Roseus is a member of Israel United in Christ, according to the ruling, and identifies himself as Jewish. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified the Bronx-based group as a member of the Hebrew Israelite movement.
According to the court, Roseus, who doesn’t shave his beard or head, joined a DOC training program in 2016. Several days into the program, a DOC officer told Roseus that he would have to shave his facial hair in order to continue with the program, the suit claims.
Roseus, citing the tenets of his religion, filed a formal request for a religious accommodation, which his lawsuit said was denied. He refused to shave his facial hair and was dismissed from the training program, the court said.
He filed his lawsuit in Union County against the DOC in January 2017, citing four violations of the LAD: discriminatory failure to hire, discriminatory discharge, failure to accommodate a sincerely held religious belief, and discrimination in a place of public accommodation.
A motion judge dismissed the claim, pointing to Roseus’ failure to state a viable claim. The judge also said the DOC’s requirement for clean-shaven faces was “neutral” and “permissible.”
The Appellate Division in its unpublished ruling cited one controlling case on the issue: a 2008 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Valdes v. New Jersey. There, the plaintiff, who also was seeking a job as a corrections officer, refused to shave his beard. The DOC reached an accommodation, though, in which it said the plaintiff could continue in the job if he cut his facial hair to one-eighth of an inch.
The plaintiff in Valdes agreed to that condition, but later reneged and was terminated. The Third Circuit affirmed a finding that the policy was neutral and reasonable and that the DOC had attempted to make a reasonable accommodation.
The Roseus court on Monday said the state could not rely on the ruling in Valdes since there was no showing that the DOC made any effort to accommodate Roseus’ needs.
“When a religious practice is at issue, LAD requires the employer to demonstrate both (1) a bona fide effort to accommodate; and (2) that an accommodation would cause an undue hardship,” the judges said in the per curiam decision. “Here there was no record of either.”
Roseus’ attorney, Deborah Mains of Costello & Mains in Mount Laurel, said she was “thrilled” that there will be a hearing on the merits of the case.
The Attorney General’s Office, which represented the DOC, declined to comment on the ruling.