State Department forced Muslim security guard to shave beard, lawsuit claims

‘Nobody should be forced to choose between their faith and their job,’ said Hannah Mullen, a staff attorney for CAIR.

The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the State Department, is seen in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

(RNS) — When Devin Brooks reported for training in West Virginia early last year for his new security guard gig at the U.S. Department of State, he was pulled aside and told his beard violated the agency’s facial hair policy.

The news was a shock to Brooks, who said he had been assured in November 2021 by a third-party recruiter that the job would allow him to maintain a fist-length beard, as required by his Islamic faith.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday (May 3) by the Council on American-Islamic Relations against Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the State Department claims Brooks was forced to shave his beard to keep his job and afterward was “denied permission to maintain a beard longer than ½ inch.” Rather than accommodate Brooks’ beliefs, the agency removed him from active duty and later placed him on administrative leave, then unpaid leave, according to the lawsuit.

CAIR alleges the Department of State’s refusal to provide religious accommodation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of religion, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents the government from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion. The lawsuit requests payment for economic damages and emotional harm, along with other damages and fees.

“Nobody should be forced to choose between their faith and their job,” said Hannah Mullen, a staff attorney for CAIR, in a press release. “The Department of State could have easily accommodated Mr. Brooks. Bureaucracy and a lack of respect for religion are not defenses to Title VII and RFRA.” A State Department spokesperson informed Religion News Service that they do not comment on pending litigation.

In a letter on April 18, 2022, quoted in the lawsuit, a Department of State representative says the government can’t accommodate Brooks’ request for a beard due to safety concerns. “We have these policies on beard length in place to protect the guards and to ensure that if engaged in a physical confrontation they cannot be grabbed or pulled and used to manipulate a guard in such a way as to expose their weapons,” it says.

But lawyers representing CAIR argue in the lawsuit that these concerns don’t outweigh Brooks’ right to observe his faith. They add that the agency’s safety concerns ring hollow, given that Brooks is currently employed in a similar position at the Department of Homeland Security, where he maintains a fist-length beard without issue.

“As a result of Defendants’ unlawful actions, Brooks has suffered a loss of earnings, wages, seniority, and benefits, a loss of earning capacity, a loss of future earnings, a loss of enjoyment of life, embarrassment, humiliation, emotional distress and related damages,” the lawsuit says. “Defendants acted with malice and reckless indifference to Brooks’s federal protected rights.”

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