Menu JTA Search

Chicago Sheriff Reverses Course, Allows Jewish, Muslim Head Coverings

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

It’s not often that a matter involving issues of religious freedom has such a happy ending, or that the ending is written so swiftly.

But a brouhaha that arose this month in the Cook County Sheriff’s Department was resolved in less than a week to most everyone’s satisfaction.

Sgt. Larry Davidson, a Cook County deputy sheriff and an Orthodox Jew, is back on the job and is wearing his yarmulke.

And Crystal Clark, a Muslim who also works in the sheriff’s office, is allowed to wear her hijab, or headscarf, at work. Both, however, must keep their religious headgear under a uniform hat or cap while on the job.

The quick resolution to the matter was largely due to a speedy response from both Jewish and Muslim groups who worked toward the same end, although not together.

The controversy begin in early July when Clark, who converted to Islam in January, learned that the sheriff’s office had refused her request to wear a headscarf at work.

According to the Chicago Tribune, she told officials that she knew of a Jewish officer who was allowed to wear his skullcap on the job.

After reviewing uniform regulations in connection with Clark’s request, sheriff’s department officials then told Davidson, a 21-year veteran of the office, on July 1 that he would be officially asked to remove his yarmulke the next day.

Davidson, 49, had been wearing the yarmulke to work for two years.

In defending the decision, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, Bill Cunningham, told the Tribune that allowing individuals to wear religious articles of clothing to work “will open Pandora’s box. There will be a steady stream of employees asking for something,” he said.

Cunningham also said Clark’s hijab could pose a security threat: When she works in the courtroom, an inmate could grab it and use it to strangle her, he said.

Davidson was officially asked on July 2 to remove the yarmulke, but he refused.

The department confiscated his gun and star — since refusing an order is considered insubordination — and he was told to report to work without his uniform to perform clerical duties.

Davidson contacted State Sen. Ira Silverstein, also an Orthodox Jew and a longtime friend.

Silverstein in turn alerted the local office of the Anti-Defamation League, which put its officials to work on behalf of both Davidson and Clark.

Richard Hirschhaut, director of the ADL’s Midwest office, called the sheriff department’s decision “arrogant and punitive.”

In addition to the original edict, the de-deputizing of Davidson was “arbitrary,” he said.

“Rather than the sheriff’s office finding a way to accommodate the religious needs of two dedicated, local employees, they chose to simply issue an edict that no religious head coverings would be tolerated,” he said.

In addition, Hirschhaut said, he disagreed with the sheriff’s office that the edict was based on strong legal grounds.

“The law is not so conclusive,” he said. “The Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act says that unless the sheriff’s office could show compelling interest for them not to wear the headgear, they need to accommodate them.

“Beyond the legal grounds, this was poor, misguided public policy,” he said.

While the ADL was writing letters to the sheriff’s office and sending out press releases to news media, another organization, the Council on American Islamic Relations was doing the same on behalf of Clark.

The two organizations worked alongside each other but not together.

That was partly because ADL officials refuse to work with CAIR “as long as it continues to fail to renounce and condemn terrorism,” Hirschhaut said. Jewish groups have previously condemned the organization, which they say condones terrorism.

Silverstein said that since both groups were “on the same page,” a coalition between them wasn’t needed.

Apparently that was true because on July 5 the sheriff’s department announced that both deputies will be allowed to wear their religious headgear, though they must cover the articles with a uniform hat or cap.

Hirschhaut said he hopes the case will send a message to other government agencies who may face similar concerns in the future.

“I hope they will spare themselves the public embarrassment that the sheriff’s office went through,” he said. “I am just happy that this was so quickly and positively resolved.”

NEXT STORY