Webb v. City of Philadelphia, 2009 WL 915681 (3d Cir., April 7, 2009) – The plaintiff, a Philadelphia police officer, sued the City of Philadelphia after it denied her request to wear a traditional Muslim head scarf while in uniform and on duty, then disciplined her for violating a department directive when she refused to remove it. The police department, which did not offer any accommodation to the plaintiff, argued religious neutrality was vital to promote the image of a disciplined, identifiable and impartial police force.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff met each element of a prima facie case of religious discrimination because: 1) she held a sincere religious belief that conflicted with a job requirement; 2) she informed her employer of the conflict; and 3) she was disciplined for not complying with the conflicting requirement. The burden therefore shifted to the police department to demonstrate either a good faith effort to reasonably accommodate her belief, or that an accommodation would result in an undue burden to the department.

Reiterating that an accommodation is an undue burden under Title VII if it imposes more than a de minimis cost (economic or non-economic) on the employer, the Third Circuit agreed that the department’s refusal to accommodate the plaintiff was proper, and that any accommodation would be an undue burden. The court recognized it is critical that the police department maintain its uniform as a symbol of neutral government authority, and that uniform requirements are crucial to the safety of officers. The court distinguished its prior decision in Fraternal Order of Police Newark Lodge No. 12 v. City of Newark, 170 F.3d 359 (3d Cir. 1999), where a police department’s restriction on beards was rejected as discriminatory, because the department granted medical exceptions, but not religious ones. The government cannot discriminate, the FOP decision reminded, between conduct that is secularly motivated, and that which is religiously motivated.

Note: This article was published in the May 2009 issue of the New Jersey eAuthority.

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