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Muslim Police Officer Kimberlie Webb Loses Discrimination Claims Based on Headscarf Ban: Workplace Dresscodes and Discrimination

A federal court of appeals has ruled that a police department's refusal to allow a female Muslim police officer to wear a headscarf while on duty did not add up to religious or sexual discrimination.

Kimberlie Webb, a practicing Muslim, got hired as a Philadelphia police officer in 1995, but the circumstances leading to her case happened in 2003. This was when she asked her supervisor if it would be okay if she wore a headscarf while on duty and in uniform. To clarify, this wasn't the type of headscarf that would cover her whole face, but instead "would cover her head and the back of her neck." (Obviously, headscarves were not on the list.)

Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Police Department refused the request based on a "Directive", or memo, specifically listing allowable uniforms and equipment. Philly's Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson noted, "[o]ur dress code is very, very strict. . . . And it specifically tells you the things that you can wear. If those things are not on there, then it is prohibited based on our Directives."

So a battle of wills ensued with Webb showing up to work in a headscarf and the Department sending her home. Webb ended up getting disciplined and thereafter suing the city. As noted by the court, the crucial issue in these types of religious discrimination cases often boils down to whether an employer "can show reasonable accommodation would work an undue hardship" on it.

In this case, the Department refused any accomodation whatsoever, and the following justification given by Commissioner Johnson found favor with the court:

"In sum, in my professional judgment and experience, it is critically important to promote the image of a disciplined, identifiable and impartial police force by maintaining the Philadelphia Police Department uniform as a symbol of neutral government authority, free from expressions of personal religion, bent or bias."

Also, the policy at issue applied and was implemented neutrally so as to bar all religious symbols or garb (unlike some past cases.) An interesting aspect of this case is how it might have turned out differently if Webb had successfully shown that other people in the Department were permitted to wear/display religious symbols (such as crosses, for example). Below are some more links and resources on discrimination.