ACLU Wins Victory for Orthodox Jewish Police Officer Seeking to Wear Beard
On August 6, 2008, United States District Court Judge Roger L. Hunt ordered that under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Detective Steve Riback should be allowed to wear a beard at his desk job at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
In August of 2007, the ACLU of Nevada filed a complaint on behalf of Detective Riback, a Metro officer, challenging the Department's refusal to allow him to wear a beard and yarmulke.
Detective Riback is an accomplished former Vice Squad officer and an Orthodox Jew. Wearing a beard and head covering are requirements of his faith. Metro refused his requests to wear a beard despite the fact that beards are allowed for medical reasons. Although officers are generally not allowed to wear beards Judge Hunt ordered, as a matter of law, that because Metro allows officers to wear beards for medical reasons, Detective Riback must also be allowed to wear a beard for religious reasons.
From an ACLU point of view, this could not be more of a victory. Freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment prohibits employers from discriminating between an employee’s religious and non-religious motivations. This is the very reason the ACLU of Nevada was drawn to the case.
Detective Riback is excited by the ruling and “is very glad to have his view that Metro should allow him to wear a beard backed up by a federal judge.” Detective Riback pursued the case because he feels that “allowing religious expression is important not just for himself but for people of all religions.”
In the case, co-counseled by San Francisco lawyers Jim Quadra and Sylvia Sokol from Moscone, Emblidge, & Quadra, Detective Riback is also seeking a ruling that gives him the ability to wear a head covering. While Metro later changed the policy, officers were allowed to wear hats indoors when Detective Riback first sought permission to wear a hat or other head covering. The Department has argued that it cannot allow any officer to express religion. However, Metro previously allowed officers to wear Christian pins – even on uniforms. Further, other forms of religious expression often go uncensored at Metro. While Orthodox Jewish men generally wear traditional yarmulkes, Detective Riback offered to wear a hat to alleviate Metro's concerns but Metro has been unwilling to budge on the issue.
Under Judge Hunt's ruling, Detective Riback will now be able to pursue claims with respect to the head covering request at trial.
In the ACLU's view, the case is an important one and it has dedicated significant resources to the case because of the policy and constitutional issues at hand.
“Detective Riback is seeking two things – the right to wear a beard and the right to wear a hat. Judge Hunt's ruling gives us victory on the beard issue and momentum on the yarmulke issue,” said Gary Peck, Executive Director. “We think it is important that Metro follow the constitution in its decisions to allow or disallow religious expression, and that it not discriminate between religions – or between religious reasons and non-religious ones.”