PHILADELPHIA – Federal authorities say Philadelphia police wrongly barred a female officer from wearing a Muslim head scarf, a ruling that could lead to a civil rights lawsuit against the city.
The local U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office ruled last month that the department appeared to have violated the rights of Kimberlie Webb, 41, who has been on the force for eight years.
The EEOC said the department lacked valid reason or legal precedent in threatening to fire Webb after she came to work Aug. 12 wearing the dark blue hijab, also known as a khimar, on the top and back of her head.
The city declined the EEOC offer of conciliation services, according to Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson. Under EEOC policy, the matter is then referred to the Justice Department, which could file a civil rights lawsuit against the city.
Webb’s attorney, Craig Thorp, said she had received an EEOC notice saying that the matter had been referred to Washington.
“This is an issue where her fundamental rights are very well established,” Thorp said. “I’m flabbergasted that the city won’t acknowledge she has this right.”
Johnson’s legal adviser, Karen Simmons, said the department was ready for a legal battle over the matter. “We think we have a very strong policy and a strong case,” she said.
EEOC officials declined to discuss the Nov. 4 ruling or confirm whether it had been referred to the Justice Department.
In August, Webb came to roll call wearing the hijab even though she had been told twice not to do so. Commanders called the scarf a policy violation and said they would fire her if she wore it again.
Webb’s actions came after Johnson amended department policy to allow men to wear short beards for health or religious reasons.
“There is nowhere in the Koran that says you have to wear a beard or a hijab,” said Johnson, who is also a Muslim. “We are a paramilitary organization and we just cannot let people wear whatever they want.”
Police originally defended the policy by saying someone could restrain or hurt Webb by grabbing the scarf. In later statements, the department cited the need for a uniform dress policy to foster “obedience, unity, commitment and esprit de corps.”
Webb has been going to work without the scarf for now.
“She is quite frustrated,” Thorp said. “It’s been an emotionally draining experience.”
Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer