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U.S. government sues Philadelphia schools over beard policy

By Dave Warner

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The U.S. government sued Philadelphia's school district for religious discrimination on Wednesday for demanding that a veteran Muslim police officer trim his beard.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court by the Department of Justice, said the nation's eighth-largest school district passed a grooming policy in 2010 that mandated beards on police and security officers be no longer than one-quarter of an inch (6.35 mm).

The officer in question, Siddiq Abu-Bakr, keeps an untrimmed beard longer than one-quarter of an inch in adherence to his Islamic faith, the suit said.

Grooming policies that conflict with religious practice have

been an issue in institutions in other parts of the country. The Pentagon decided in January to ease rules on beards and turbans in the U.S. Army.

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether prison officials in Arkansas may prohibit inmates from growing beards in accordance with their religious beliefs.

In the Philadelphia case, Abu-Bakr has maintained an untrimmed beard for his 27 years with the district "without evidence that the maintenance of an uncut beard has interfered with his job performance," a Justice Department statement said.

The statement said that when Abu-Bakr told his supervisor that he could not cut his beard because of his beliefs, he was issued a written reprimand.

Abu-Bakr, who is still with the district, filed a charge of religious discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The government's lawsuit is seeking an injunction that would force the district to develop new, non-discriminatory grooming policies. It also seeks unspecified damages.

A representative for the school district was not immediately available for comment. The district employs 16,827 people.

(Reporting by Dave Warner; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Ken Wills)

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