After requesting an exemption from the rules to grow Islamic beards, a pair of Muslim correctional officers were denied special privileges from a state prison. Once they filed a federal religious discrimination lawsuit, the prison came forward with a final decision.
For years, 51-year-old Brian Sughrim and 49-year-old David Feliciano say that their beards created no issues during their employment at Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York. Then, their superiors suddenly called them in to inform the devout Muslim men that their facial hair would have to fall in line with their policy, which required beards to be tightly trimmed.
Feeling as though they were being asked to choose between their religious beliefs and their careers, the pair insisted that they keep their beards. Unfortunately, they soon realized that the decision was taken by their employers as an unofficial resignation.
According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) issued Sughrim and Feliciano suspensions for their failure to comply with the prison’s policy. The pair claims that they were subsequently threatened with being terminated for noncompliance.
The incident caused “… total embarrassment in front of my colleagues and a great deal of emotional pain in trying to understand why I was singled out because of my religion,” Sughrim said. “I pray that justice will be served so that I can begin to heal.”
The pair attempted to submit “an approved medical exemption” justifying their beards. The doctor’s notes claimed that the pair both suffered from “pseudofolliculitis barbae,” which causes ingrown hairs and painful bumps if the facial hair is shaved. Still, their employers rejected the exemption, the New York Daily News reports.
Refusing to take the order on the chin, the pair hired New York City-based lawyer Joshua Moskovitz, who filed a class-action lawsuit against the DOCCS for “religious intolerance.” The 29-page lawsuit claims that the prison discriminated against Sughrim and Feliciano for their Muslim beliefs while allowing other officers to keep their facial hair for “secular reasons.”
“We talk about New York living in a melting pot and the state of New York is going to force me to shave my beard?” Feliciano said. “Because I’m a Muslim I won’t be able to feed my family and take care of myself?”
“I felt degraded. Stripped of my dignity,” Sughrim said. “I had colleagues yelling, ‘Are you stupid? Why don’t you shave?’”
Just hours after filing the federal suit, Sughrim and Feliciano received some surprising news. The DOCCS reversed its decision and offered to fully reinstate them with back pay. However, the pair wasn’t quite satisfied.
The Times Union reports that Sughrim and Feliciano decided to continue pursuing their lawsuit against the department for religious discrimination. The pair hoped to receive punitive damages as well as protections for religious beliefs because the suspension caused them “a great deal of embarrassment and emotional pain.”
DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey explained that the department conducted a “secondary review” of their case due to legislation that had passed just a week before their suspension. The new law prohibits entities from discriminating against employees based on facial hair.