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Monday, September 8, 2014

Justice Department Settles Religious Discrimination Lawsuit Against School District of Philadelphia

The Department of Justice announced today that it has entered into a settlement agreement with the School District of Philadelphia that resolves a religious accommodations lawsuit filed in March 2014.  In its lawsuit, the United States alleged that the school district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) by failing to accommodate the religious beliefs, observances and/or practices of Siddiq Abu-Bakr, a school police officer who is Muslim, and similarly-situated employees who maintain a beard longer than one-quarter inch for religious purposes.


The department’s complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, alleged that in October 2010 the school district implemented a new grooming policy that strictly prohibits school police officers from having a beard longer than one-quarter inch.  Abu-Bakr, a 27-year employee of the school district, maintains a beard longer than one-quarter inch in adherence to his Islamic faith.  Consistent with his religious beliefs, Abu-Bakr has maintained a beard longer than one-quarter inch the entire time that he has worked for the school district, with no indication that the beard diminished his performance. 


According to the United States’ complaint, when Abu-Bakr requested an accommodation to the grooming policy, the school district disciplined him for violating the policy and denied his religious accommodation request.  The complaint also alleged that the school district maintains a discriminatory policy under which it routinely denies all accommodation requests to the grooming policy involving beard length.  Abu-Bakr, who is individually represented by the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic, filed a complaint in intervention, asserting claims similar to those of the United States.  Abu-Bakr dismissed his complaint in intervention after he and the school district entered a private settlement agreement.     


Under the terms of the United States’ settlement agreement, the school district has agreed to develop and distribute a revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy, which will include a procedure by which school police officers can request a religious accommodation.  The school district agreed to notify current and prospective school police officers that their religious accommodation requests will be considered on an individualized basis and that the school district will engage in an interactive process with the school police officers before denying any religious accommodation requests under the revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy.  In addition, the school district has agreed to provide mandatory training on religious accommodation to all supervisors, managers, human resources officials and other individuals who may receive inquiries from school police officers regarding the revised school police officer proper attire & appearance policy.  The school district also will pay compensatory damages to two similarly-situated employees and will expunge all discipline related to the policy from their personnel files.


“We are pleased that the school district of Philadelphia has agreed to develop a revised  policy that will allow school police officers to request religious accommodations without posing an undue hardship on the school district,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Molly Moran for the Civil Rights Division.  “Through our partnership with the EEOC, the Civil Rights Division continues the commitment of the United States Department of Justice to vigorous enforcement of the nation’s employment discrimination laws.”    

“This settlement agreement demonstrates once again that the close working relationship between the EEOC and the Department of Justice allows us to use public resources most efficiently to enforce our civil rights laws,” said U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) District Director Spencer H. Lewis Jr.  “This settlement agreement contains significant equitable policy changes that will enable school district police officers to request and receive religious accommodations absent an undue hardship.”    

This case was litigated by Senior Trial Attorney Raheemah Abdulaleem and Trial Attorney Catherine Sellers of the Civil Rights Division’s Employment Litigation Section.


More information about Title VII and other federal employment laws is available at this website .  The continued enforcement of Title VII is a priority of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  Additional information about the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is available on its website at www.usdoj.gov/crt.


Related Materials:

US v. School District of Philadelphia Settlement Agreement

Updated August 28, 2015