Ride a bus or subway in New York City and you’ll hear and/or read that message over and over, emphasizing how important our vigilance is in the war against “terror.” The terrorists we are scared to name, the ones who murdered almost 3,000 people on 9/11, were all bearded men. The police force in New York City, our nation’s first line of defense against terrorists, is clean-shaven. Without consciously thinking about it, we are used to seeing law enforcers with open faces and we associate that with their accessibility. The New York City Police Department makes accommodations for hiring religious individuals by allowing a beard no longer than one millimeter, approximately 1/3 of an inch. Fishel Litzman, a 28 year old Chasidic Jew, was fired from the police aademy when he refused to trim his beard. He is currently appealing that action in federal court, claiming that it is a violation of his legally protected religious freedom.
In 1964, when Title V11 of the Civil Rights Act was enacted, Americans were concerned with fighting discrimination against minorities, women, religions, the elderly and the handicapped. We were a country that had not been attacked in our homeland since Pearl Harbor and that was not an attack on arguably the most important, iconic city in the United States. Almost fifty years later, we are in a very different place with more urgent concerns for our domestic safety. At this moment in time, we should be properly more concerned with facilitating the esprit de corps and efficacy of the police force than trying to accommodate many individual forms of religious expression. If Mr. Litzman is a Chasidic Jew, it’s hard to understand how the religious strictures against touching women wouldn’t make it equally impossible for him to perform as a policeman in the line of duty. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that not every person is suited for every job and that a man who must wear a bushy beard and cannot touch women has excluded himself from consideration for the police force.
In Florida recently, a court ruled that a woman applying for a driver’s license could not be veiled in her photograph. It was deemed more important to preclude terrorists from concealing their identities than to accommodate the applicant’s religious belief. Conveniently, the court determined that showing her face on her driver’s license would not be an infringement on this woman’s exercise of her religion. We have traditionally been a country that has tried to embody respet for many religions and though some might quarrel with our success, you need only look to other countries to see how amazingly we have assimilated people from all over the world. Now we need to apply JFK’s exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Fishel Litzman is not a terrorist; he’s simply a man who has imbibed the increasingly contagious lesson that if you don’t get exactly what you want, you sue for it. How much better it would be if Mr. Litzman understood that perhaps, in order to uphold his religious convictions, he needed to find a job that wouldn’t conflict with them, instead of finding a lawyer willing to challenge professional rules that work. The lawyer admits that the NYPD is not anti-semitic but in his estimation, insisting on a trimmed beard for their patrolmen constitutes religious discrimination. Does he believe that not hiring a man who cannot touch women is also religious discrimination? What comes to mind is the old joke about the stutterer who applies for a job as a tv anchorman, is refused and then claims racial bias.
If Mr. Litzman wins his appeal, it will open the door to a police force populated by head-scarved women, turbaned men and a host of other accessories that deviate from the standard uniform we associate with a law enforcer. It’s reassuring to know that it’s not confusing to identify the cop to whom you can “say something when you see something.” Let’s keep it that way and remember that it’s more important to enable the NYPD to do its job as effectively as possible than to bend to individuals who are inappropriate for service on the force.
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