Police and similar public safety departments can forbid their officers and other uniformed personnel from wearing religious symbols and garb if they provide the right ground rules. But it’s a thorny issue that’s worth giving plenty of consideration.
You can, for example, have a policy that bans all religious symbols on uniforms if you can articulate a solid public-policy reason for the rule. That’s what happened in one recent case involving a woman who wanted to wear a Muslim headscarf as a religious accommodation.
Recent case: Kimberlie Webb, a practicing Muslim, worked as a police officer. Although she had worked as a police officer since 1995, it wasn’t until years later that she requested permission to wear a headscarf while in uniform and on duty.
The headscarf, or hijab, is a traditional headcovering worn by Muslim women. It covers the head and the back of the neck. Hijabs do not cover the face or ears, and it is generally accepted that they do not cause any safety problems.
The police department denied Webb’s request, but she showed up at work wearing the scarf anyway. Her supervisors told her to go home. This continued for several days until Webb filed an EEOC complaint and came to work in her regular uniform. She was charged with insubordination and was suspended for 13 days.
Webb sued, alleging her religious practice should have been accommodated.
The police department said it would be unreasonable for it to accommodate the scarf. It explained that police officers need to present themselves to the public as neutral officers of the state, ready to enforce the law fairly and evenhandedly without regard to the religion of victims or suspects.
Although the court was sympathetic to Webb and believed her religious belief was sincere, it said that the police department’s policy took precedence. It also observed that there were no exceptions made for other religions, symbols or garb.
The court said the police uniform serves important functions such as encouraging subordination of personal preferences and identities in favor of the overall group mission—in this case, providing policing services on a fair and impartial basis to the diverse citizenry. (Webb v. City of Philadelphia, No 07-3081, 3rd Cir., 2009)