Jewish officer fights dismissal
Says he was fired for honoring religious holidays
Towson University By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun
8:53 p.m. EDT, July 24, 2010
When we last left John David Brown, the police corporal had reached an agreement with his employer, Towson University, that ended his complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and staved off his termination.
That was Nov. 20, 2006.
Brown, a convert to Orthodox Judaism, had declined to work the Sabbath — from sundown Fridays through sundown Saturday — and religious holidays. The small university police force said it simply could not accommodate his schedule.
But a student protest and publicity drove both sides to a peace accord. The day before a hearing in which Brown could have been fired, he agreed to be suspended six days without pay, and the university promised to make it easier for him to take days off.
The publicity went away. But the problems didn't.
On Aug. 19, 2008, Towson University Police Chief Bernard J. Gerst fired Brown.
The 38-year-old is now unemployed, divorced and sharing custody of his two children, ages 7 and 9. And he's still fighting for his old job, having filed a new EEOC complaint alleging that the university backed out of its deal and discriminated against him based on his religion.
Arthur C. Abramson, the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, who has worked on similar workplace issues in cities from Baltimore to Los Angeles, told me the Towson case "is the first time it's ever come to a firing because a department could not accommodate a religious schedule."
"It's sad that it reached this level," Abramson said. "I hope that the university tried to accommodate his schedule as much as possible. No American should be fired for practicing his religion."
The university argues that police supervisors did all they could but that it was Brown who tried to take liberties beyond the agreement — which expired after a year — by going AWOL seven times between September 2007 and February 2008. One date was a Jewish holiday; the others fell on the Sabbath, when religious Jews are supposed to rest and refrain from work and virtually all other chores.
According to the report of his disciplinary hearing, Brown had requested those dates off but was denied because it would have left the patrol force too thin.
Michael A. Anselmi, Towson University's chief attorney, told me Brown's termination "was based on non-discriminatory, legitimate business reasons. We tried reasonable attempts to accommodate him, and he continued to be absent without leave."
A disciplinary board concluded that "the department had been flexible in permitting Corporal Brown the use of available leave when staffing allowed" and to "seek alternative scheduling to fulfill his religious observations." The board said Brown failed to "seek the voluntary exchange of days off with other officers" and his absences "left the department to force other officers to cover his work shifts."
The issue of scheduling around religious observances has not come up in other area police departments, according to the local American Civil Liberties Union. Staff lawyer David Rocah said employers have "a duty to accommodate employee's religious obligations as long as accommodations do not constitute an 'undue hardship' on the conduct of the employer's business."
For police departments, staffing is crucial, and it can easily be argued that allowing officers to take days off at will could not only cause internal scheduling problems but also could imperil public safety.
Policies vary at area law enforcement agencies, but most are large enough that such requests can easily be handled. Maryland State Police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley said that "commanders are to make every effort to grant the requests, consistent with manpower needs" but that if an absence "would result in a critical shortage of staff or cause serious interference with the efficiency of the department's operation, the request will be denied."
Cpl. Michael Hill, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department, said his agency has no formal policy, but he noted that "supervisors do their very best to try to accomplish requests for leave by officers who may be normally scheduled to work on a certain day that falls on a religious holiday." Hill was one of three officers who sat on the hearing board that found Brown guilty.
Baltimore police haven't had any disputes over work shifts but they haven't avoided spats over religion entirely. Officer Antoine D. Chambers threatened to sue the department in 2000 when he was ordered to cut his dreadlocks. He argued that his hairstyle was dictated by his religious practice, Rastafarianism.
The ACLU threatened to sue and settled with the department, which amended its grooming standards to exempt requests based on religious grounds. Rocah, the ACLU attorney, said Chambers and another officer in a similar position were compensated for their attorney fees and to cover discipline they had received.
This month, an Egyptian woman hired as a dietary officer at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland filed a federal lawsuit alleging that her employers demanded she remove her head covering because she could hide weapons inside it.
When Magda M. Zidan, who is a Muslim, refused, she was locked in a room adjacent to the kitchen, put under guard and not given any "appropriate or meaningful job tasks to complete," says the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. She was eventually fired. State officials declined to comment; they have not yet responded to the complaint in court.
It's yet another example of an agency trying to balance religious practices with job requirements. Police agencies are paramilitary organizations, and any deviation from the norm is suspect.
But they also have a duty to protect the citizenry. Certainly, any police department needs to be properly staffed. It's easier for the city police, with 3,000 officers, to maneuver schedules and shift assignments. It's harder when you're Towson University and have a patrol staff of 26 officers and three sergeants.
Delving into any personnel dispute is fraught with peril. Brown said his sergeant, in his last performance review, checked boxes rating his job performance as below standard or unsatisfactory, even as the descriptions of his efforts were laudatory, such as praise for chasing down a distraught student before he could jump off a 50-foot elevated walkway.
But the evaluation does repeatedly note his absence from work and use of sick leave, "that he refuses to show up or call and advise that he will not be in on Friday nights. … This is whether he has the leave or not … whether we have the manpower or not."