When Work And Religion Collide


Two religious accommodation cases last week that involved Orthodox Jews — a prospective Sabbath-observant employee of a New York-based consulting firm, and a chasidic Jew whose beard threatens to keep him out of the New York Police Department — are part of an ongoing tug of war between employers and religious workers, says the veteran lawyer who has advocated on behalf of Shabbat-observant Jews for more than four decades.

Nathan Lewin says employers’ opposition to employees’ religious practices is a “recurring problem” usually motivated by financial or personnel reasons, not a growing opposition to members of any faith.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a settlement with Milrose Consultants, an architectural and engineering firm, which reportedly rescinded a job offer to a prospective, unnamed employee who would have to leave work early on some Fridays to get home before sundown. The settlement requires the firm to put in place a religious accommodation policy.

And the NYPD dismissed from its academy Fishel Litzman, a Lubavitcher chasid from Rockland County who refused, for religious reasons, to trim his beard. Litzman, 28, a former paramedic who had quit his job as a paramedic in order to train for a career as a police officer, was fired a few weeks before he was to join the police force. Lewin, in a telephone interview this week with The Jewish Week, said he will file an appeal to the NYPD’s action in federal court.

NYPD rules require officers to be clean-shaven, with exceptions for a beard, no longer than one millimeter, kept for religious reasons.

Lewin, who served as Litzman’s pro bono attorney, called the police department’s decision to dismiss Litzman a violation of federal religious accommodation laws, but not anti-Semitic. “The police department is not anti-Semitic. The police department,” which includes about a score of Orthodox officers, “ is not anti-Jewish.”

Litzman’s dismissal “is a violation of his religious rights,” Lewin said. “It definitely is religious discrimination.”

Lewin earlier represented Rabbi Mitchell Geller, an Air Force chaplain who won a similar case in 1976, and Rabbi Menachem Stern, who was installed as an Army chaplain last year.