Judge: Philly PD can bar officer from wearing Muslim head scarf

Patrick Walters
The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA - A federal judge ruled that the city's police department did not violate the civil rights of a Muslim officer when it forbid her from wearing a Muslim head scarf on the job.

Kimberlie Webb, 44, who has been on the force more than 10 years, filed a discrimination lawsuit in October 2005 after the department said she could not wear a khimar at work because the religious symbol violated uniform regulations.

U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III on Tuesday sided with the city and dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the police department did not discriminate or retaliate against Webb.

"Prohibiting religious symbols and attire 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 wrote. "Under the circumstances, it would clearly cause the city an undue hardship if it had to allow (Webb) to wear a khimar."

In February 2003, Webb told her supervisor she that her religion required her to wear the scarf, which covered her hair, forehead, neck, shoulders, and chest. When her request was denied, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

While that complaint was pending, she decided to challenge the policy. She showed up wearing the khimar and was sent home several times. She was suspended without pay for 13 days in March 2004.

Her challenge came shortly after Commissioner Sylvester Johnson amended department policy to allow men to wear short beards for health or religious reasons.

City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. said there is a significant difference between being allowed to grow a short beard , which may not be longer than a quarter inch and must be neatly trimmed , and being allowed to wear a religious symbol.

Wearing a khimar would hurt the department's nonsectarian image, Diaz said. "We want people to be comfortable that the police department has no sectarian interests," he said.

Lance James, an attorney who represented Webb, said he was surprised that the judge ruled against his client.

James pointed out that the Department of Justice had given support to Webb's cause, ruling that the police department appeared to have violated her rights.

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