A Muslim police officer is suing the New York Police Department (NYPD) to stop enforcement of what he says is an unconstitutional policy banning officers from having beards.
Masood Syed, who works as a law clerk for the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Trials, said he's had a half-inch to one-inch beard throughout his ten-year police career, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
But on Tuesday, Syed's supervisor at Police Headquarters suspended the 32-year-old without pay after he refused to trim his beard, which he keeps as a Sunni Muslim, his lawsuit said. The day before, he was told in writing to grow it no longer than one millimeter, court papers said, or roughly .04 inches.
The NYPD prohibits beards of any length, though unwritten policy permits them up to one millimeter in length for religious accommodations, Syed's lawsuit said. Syed, who is also a lawyer, claims many NYPD officers have beards longer than that, according to court documents.
At an emergency hearing in Manhattan Wednesday, Judge Kevin Castel ordered the NYPD to continue paying Syed's salary and benefits at least until July 8, Syed's attorney Joshua S. Moskovitz told NBC News. That's when a preliminary injunction hearing will be held to decide if Syed is likely to succeed in his claim that the NYPD's no-beard policy violates the First Amendment, Moskovitz said.
If Syed is successful, a judge could temporarily halt the NYPD from enforcing the ban or require the department to adopt some other interim policy as the case moves forward, Moskovitz said.
The city Law Department, which handles litigation against New York City government agencies, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Syed's supervisor told him to report to the I.D. Unit to have a photo taken for a new identification card, his lawsuit alleges. In November, Police Commissioner William Bratton implemented new security procedures and required all NYPD officers to receive updated I.D. cards, the lawsuit said.
Syed alleges the I.D. Unit has refused to take photos or issue new I.D. cards for officers with beards in excess of one millimeter, his lawsuit said.
A sergeant assigned to the I.D. Unit asked Syed for a religious accommodation letter for his beard, which he filed for in December, according to court documents. But because the letter was still pending, the sergeant contacted Syed's supervisor, who then allegedly instructed Syed to shave his beard entirely, the lawsuit said.
When Syed refused, his supervisor immediately suspended him for 30 days, took his gun and badge, and had him escorted from One Police Plaza, court papers said.
Syed, a Pakistani American, received a medical accommodation for his beard after joining the NYPD in 2006 and a religious accommodation two years later, his lawsuit said. Looking to avoid any trouble, he also signed a required document in 2011, saying he would keep his beard no longer than one millimeter, even though other officers had beards that were longer, according to court papers.
For four years, Syed continued wearing his beard a half-inch to one-inch in length, his lawsuit said. August last year was the first time a supervisor told Syed he was out of compliance with NYPD policy, court papers allege.
This isn't the first time an NYPD officer has sued the department over its no-beard policy. In 2012, the NYPD fired probationary officer Fishel Litzman for refusing to shave his one-inch beard he kept as a member of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Community, court papers said.
Litzman filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that the NYPD had violated his First Amendment rights. The department countered that Litzman could not keep the beard because new officers must shave at least once a year for certification on an MSA millennium model respirator, according to Syed's lawsuit.
But U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baer ruled in 2013 that the policy violated Litzman's right to practice his religion and said the department's ban on beards wasn't enforced uniformly, court papers said. Litzman was given back his job and continues to work for the NYPD with a one-inch beard allowed under a religious accommodation, Syed's lawsuit said.
Moskovitz, Syed's attorney, said he doesn't think he'll have difficulty showing that the NYPD allegedly violated Syed's First Amendment rights.
"This case has been litigated already, which is part of what I find the most troubling about the NYPD's conduct here," he said.
In addition to a judgement declaring the NYPD's no-beard policy unconstitutional, Syed is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, according to his lawsuit.