I work as a detective for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. For the past 11 years, I've seen the gamut, from police chases to shootings to undercover assignments. But my toughest assignment had nothing to do with actual police work. It was defending my religious rights as a police officer.
Being Jewish is great, and being a police officer is great. But the two didn't always mix so well once I decided to become observant. I always kept my religion to myself at work, especially while working in an undercover role. I didn't think it was appropriate for me to wear my yarmulke and tzitzis strings out while involved in various undercover police operations. I did however keep my head covered with hats, I had a beard, and I always wore my tzitzis tucked in to protect me everywhere I went.
It wasn't until a police operation scheduled on my normal day off -- Saturday-- that my Judaism became exposed to the police department. Although the operation never occurred, it was to be rescheduled in the near future. I explained to the department that I observed the Sabbath but would always be willing to work in an emergency (this police operation didn't meet the standards as one). In order to avoid future Sabbath conflicts, I voluntarily changed assignments to a non-uniformed desk job. Little did I know, this was the start of one the most defining events in my life.
A high-ranking officer ordered me to remove my beard immediately.
Prior to making the transfer, I met with my new supervisor and explained about keeping my head covered and wearing a beard. My supervisor was very understanding and allowed me to wear a yarmulke at work along with a short manicured beard. Six weeks into my new assignment, a high-ranking officer saw me with my beard and ordered it to be removed immediately, making no mention of the yarmulke.
I sought the assistance of the department's diversity director and my rabbi for guidance and did some of my own research. I found a court case that addressed circumstances allowing police officers to wear beards for religious reasons. The case involved Muslim police officers in Newark who were denied the right to wear a beard for religious reasons, while their department allowed others to wear beards for medical purposes. Eventually they won the right for beards, with the ruling explaining that the no-beard policy for religious reasons was discriminatory and unconstitutional. The ruling essentially determined that if a beard is already allowed for one set of circumstances, it must be allowed for others.
The Las Vegas department had the exact same circumstances as Newark -- they allowed only beards only for medical reasons.
I presented this information to my department but was unequivocally denied to wear a beard and yarmulke. I tried to compromise, asking to wear a plain hat instead, but that too was denied. The ironic and most disturbing of facts were that both a beard and hat were already allowed under existing policies for my department. I felt levels of disgust and frustration during the situation, especially in the beginning. For years I had given my heart and soul to police work and here they were being so unreasonable to what I felt were simple requests. I was more than willing to sit down and discuss the issue to try and reach a compromise, but my department wasn't interested. Fighting was the only option I had.
My parents taught me to stand up for things you believe in. In addition, I took an oath to uphold the constitution and that oath certainly applied to me. Thinking back to the endless discrimination against Jews, I felt this was something too important not to fight. The department ordered me to shave my beard and remove my yarmulke. If I were to acquiesce, then tomorrow it may be to stop keeping Shabbat. I could not do something that would encourage assimilation.
I discussed with my wife what fighting this issue would entail and the impact it would have on our family. Newly married, we envisioned raising children to be proud Jews. I did not want our children to feel that it is okay to be Jewish in our home but as soon as we go outside, we act like everyone else. My wife was extremely supportive, especially as this fight consumed much of the first years of our marriage. I sought assistance from the community and got a myriad of responses. Some said just give in while others vigorously encouraged me to continue to fight. Although Las Vegas is said to have one of the biggest Jewish communities, this did not help to sway the department's decision to still enforce the no beard and yarmulke rule.
"You must get involved to have an impact. No one is impressed with the won-lost record of the referee."---John H. Holcomb
After my attempts to compromise were rejected, I was forced to seek the assistance of attorneys to wage an unnecessarily long and costly fight for my rights and those of other similarly situated officers. My claims were vindicated when the U.S. District Court ruled that my First Amendment rights with respect to my beard request had been violated by the department. The judge, however, did not rule on the legality of the head covering, setting it for jury trial.
The jury trial was about a week away when the department offered a settlement. It was very probable that if a settlement was not reached and a decision was made during a trial, either side would appeal the ruling, consuming more time, money, and effort. After the prolonged legal battle, the settlement they offered was exactly what I suggested originally -- a trim beard and head covering. And in order to prevent this type of event from happening again, the department cleared up policy language, stating that if a deviation in policy is made for non-religious reasons, it must be allowed for religious grounds as well.
For over two years I fought an extremely hard battle, with the assistance of eight attorneys from four different law firms and the ACLU of Southern Nevada, to protect our inalienable religious rights and freedoms in this great country. This fight was not only for observant Jews; it was a fight for every Jew regardless of their affiliation or level of observance.
I took a stand against one of the biggest police department's in the nation and was able to affect change. I now have a five-month-old daughter and will be proud to instill these values into her that you must fight for what you believe in and always be proud of who you are!