Suit: PGW Demoted Muslim Man Who Wouldn’t Shave His Beard

Karim Burke says his Constitutional rights have been violated.

Philadelphia Gas Works employee Karim Burke has filed a federal lawsuit against the gas company, alleging that PGW demoted him because he wouldn’t shave his beard. Burke, who describes himself as a “devout Muslim,” believes that this is a violation of his Constitutional rights.

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

When Burke was hired by PGW to work at the Port Richmond facility on East Venango Street in 2011, he had a full beard. And he says that no one told him when he was hired that he would have to shave it. But shortly after Burke started at PGW, a supervisor informed him that his beard had to go so that he could be fitted for a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), a mask intended for emergency situations at the plant.

Burke claims in the suit that he explained that he couldn’t shave for religious reasons and that PGW management gave him a pass on the beard. The subject came up again in 2012, and again, Burke says that the company agreed to let him keep the beard. But when he refused another request in October 2013, he says that PGW told him to shave it, or else.

“There was no compelling or even rational interest that would require Mr. Burke to be fitted for a SCBA,” claims the suit. “His job duties require him to leave the Richmond complex in the event of an emergency and he was given no emergency training or responsibilities.”

Burke says he asked PGW to provide him with a different type of SCBA — one that wouldn’t require a clean-shaven face — but that the company said no. In the end, Burke says he was transferred to the position of Mechanic’s Helper “at a substantial reduction in salary.”

To support his claim, Burke includes in the suit a statement from his imam at West Philadelphia’s AICP Mosque:

Islamic law requires that a man distinguish himself from those who are not of the Islam faith by following a number of commands concerning his personal appearance and conduct. While the practice may vary among some schools of thought within Islam, our Mosque adheres to the strong religious practice that bars shaving one’s beard as a sign he is a Muslim. While a beard may be trimmed from time to time, it may not be shaved off in the manner that was required of Mr. Burke’s employer… To do so would violate Mr. Burke’s core religious beliefs.

Burke also obtained an expert opinion from South Jersey safety consultant Vincent Gallagher of Safety Research, Inc., who concluded that PGW’s policies related to shaving and the SCBA are “illogical and unreasonable.”

Burke has asked a judge to force PGW to reinstate him in his old job — with his beard, of course.

Barry O’Sullivan, a spokesman for PGW, said he could not comment on ongoing litigation.

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