When is a beard a religious beard?

56114This is one of the strangest stories that has come my way in a long time.

First of all, it’s a religion-in-the-workplace story about a conflict here in Washington, D.C., yet the mainstream news coverage that I can find is from the DC bureau of The Jerusalem Post. On one level, “Fighting for their whiskers ” is a story that asks an important question and that issue dominates the lede:

Steven Chasin is the first to admit he isn’t the world’s most observant Jew.

Tattoos, a Jewish taboo, cover his burly body, while his shaved head goes bare. He doesn’t go to synagogue every Shabbat or keep all the laws of kashrut. …

“I’m not the perfect Jew,” is how Chasin, a 40-year-old Fire Department paramedic from Virginia, puts it. But he has always strongly identified as one, and used outward symbols to reinforce the point, including the Star of David pendant that hangs around his neck and the full, brown beard that has graced his face for the past two decades.

“The beard is my way of celebrating and practicing,” he explains. “The beard is making up for some of the stuff I don’t do.”

So, when is a beard a religious beard? More on that in a minute.

Chasin’s his superiors insist that they are demanding that he shave the beard because of safety regulations. It seems that the powers that be are afraid that beards interfere with oxygen masks. Thus, we read:

… Chasin, along with six Muslims and Nazarene Christians, filed suit, charging that they should be accommodated on grounds of religious freedom. The District of Columbia District Court has sided with them, but the city is appealing. A hearing is scheduled for October 7. The fire department argues that a beard can interfere with certain gas and oxygen masks that need an airtight seal with one’s face to work.

Later, there’s this:

Chasin’s lawyer, Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, says freedom of religion statutes mean fire department and other workplaces must make “reasonable accommodation” of religious beliefs. In this case, he says there was no question about the sincerity of those religious beliefs on the part of any of the plaintiffs, and that “the real issue isn’t the sincerity of the belief, but whether the belief can be accommodated.”

In this case, so far, the court has said it can. Continuing to work with a beard while the matter is pending has had its ups and downs, according to Chasin, with some co-workers being supportive and some looking askance. But the bottom line, he says, is that “standing up for our beliefs is what it came down to. It doesn’t matter — being Jewish, being Muslim, being Nazarene — we stood up for what we believe is right and didn’t let them bully us.”

So we have a very interesting story here, based on an important question in laws affecting faith in the work place: How orthodox does a believer have to be in order to claim faith as a defense in a case like this? Is simple sincerity enough? Chasin is, in effect, standing up in defense of his own version of Judaism. Can he be a movement of one?

Meanwhile, there is a real puzzler of a reference in this story that I want to note, because it raises another question. What in the world is a “Nazarene” beard?

Folks, I have visited a bunch of campuses associated with the evangelical Protestant Church of the Nazarene and I have never heard of such a thing. I mean, think about it. If “orthodox” Nazarenes are supposed to have beards, then why doesn’t Dr. James Dobson have a beard?

No, no, no! This has nothing to do with the fact that Dobson is not ordained (cue: rim shot).

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Cathy

    This may be the one and only time I post to your website, because I’m generally unqualified to comment on these topics (enjoy reading, though). But regarding respirators, the restriction against facial hair is universal–anyone one who may need to wear one, including not just firemen, but hazardous waste workers, certain types of construction worker, etc., is strongly advised (or as with my husband’s employer, instructed) to shave the facial hair–you cannot maintain a seal for the respirator. Without a good seal you will be exposed to hazardous atmospheres or oxygen deficiency and may need rescuing yourself. This essentialy renders you useless for work when a respirator is required. Is there other non-respirator work a fireman can use to substitute for entering a smokey building? I’m not sure–but the prohibition is not something specific to this case.

  • Ira Rifkin

    I think the reference to Nazarenes should actually be a reference to Nazerites (as in the Biblical Samson), who are Jews – and some Christians; but very, very few of either – who take personal vows of abstainence, including not cutting their hair and beards. I believe there is some speculation that Jesus was a Nazerite, as well as being a Nazerene.

  • Gregory

    To this question, let me add lab safety. It is standard practice to require the wearing of long pants in any chemistry lab. Does this discriminate against the religious beliefs of some women who only wear skirts?

    As a chemistry major in undergrad, this question was hypothetically discussed on occasion. I know of no actual lawsuits or claims.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Hello, Terry

    I don’t see anything in any of the quotes you include that indicates that anyone from either side of this case raised the issue of sincerity of belief, or of whether any of the plaintiffs’ practice was consistent. That’s just your speculation.

    I worked for OSHA before I retired, and I just want to confirm that this is a workplace safety issue, not a religious issue. Facial hair does interfere with the seal that makes the face mask effective. A co-worker who risks fainting at a fire and needing rescue is a potential needless burden and danger to other workers.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Afterthought: if Mr. Chasin really were a knowledgeable and observant Jew, he’s have ditched the beard without being asked to. Jewish teaching is that you are not just permitted, but required, to break any law in order to save a life.

  • Jerry

    There are 10 google hits on “nazarene beard” but no pictures on images.google.com

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JUDY:

    Chasin says that the beard is a religious symbol TO HIM.

    “The beard is my way of celebrating and practicing,” he explains. “The beard is making up for some of the stuff I don’t do.”

  • http://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.com albion

    Glaringly lacking in this story was even one paragraph of explanation of the significance of beards to Jews, Muslims and Nazarenes. The fact that it is missing would be obvious to a beginning student in journalism.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Terry, I’m sorry I did not make myself clear. What I meant to say was that the Fire Department’s was not impugning anybody’s sincerity or questioning the consistency of Chasin’s practice. That would be way inappropriate, indeed!

    Rather, they were asserting that the safety issue in this case trumps the religious issue. These are firefighters, not receptionists or traffic cops. It’s not a matter of uniformity of appearance. It’s a reality that facial hair interferes with the seal on the gas mask, and that creates a danger not just for the bearded firefighter, but for those who might have to rescue him.

  • James Manley

    Ira Rifkin is correct; the reference is to Nazarites, not Nazarenes.

  • str1977

    Correction: there are only 8 google hits for “Nazarane beard”, including this one here.

    It might also be a beard linked to the art movement called Nazarenes.

    There was a speculation that Jesus might have been a Nazirite in order to explain the term “Nazarene” or “Nazorene” but the view fails in one aspect: Jesus was known as being prone to drinking wine, which is a no-no for Nazirites. However, there is an old tradition that his “brother” James was a Nazirite.

    Re the topic:

    I don’t see where anyone questioned the honesty of the man’s faith (except maybe the Jerusalem Post), though there could indeed be concerns whether his insistince on his beard is that legitimate, given that there are at least three other commandments that he breaks.

    But I don’t think that’s the point. One could indeed make up a one-man religion and would be entitled to a free exercise of it. But IMHO this is no issue of “free exercise of religion” if the beards a safety hazard and he now wants to be a firefighter. If he’s not up to the job (for whatever reason) she shouldn’t be doing it.

    But things are more tricky since it doesn’t seem that he has applied for the job and not got it – it seems that he is still working there and that his superiors now approached him.

    It is unclear for how long he has been working there.

    Did he have a beard when he first began?

    Have the safety regulations been recently updated?

    Why is it suddenly a problem now? If it worked fine for years and years, it shouldn’t be a problem now unless there are grave reasons for that.

    These are the questions a reporter should cover.

    Still, in the end the requirements of the job trump the man’s claim to express his religion in the workplace.

  • str1977

    James,

    Ira Rifkin is correct; the reference is to Nazarites, not Nazarenes.

    How can you say that. Any evidence for this?

    When I look at Chasin’s picture at the top of the JP article, his beard does not seem uncut at all. It is not that Nazirites are not allowed to shave – they are not allowed to cut their hair (or their nails) in any way. Hence, a “Nazirite beard” would be hanging down.

    Ah, and BTW, where does the word “Nazarene beard” actually occur in this story. I see Nazarenes and beards but not a single “Nazarene beard”.

  • Brian Walden

    I thought Jewish beards come from Leviticus 19:27 “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” But it’s obvious from the picture in the article that, unless Chasin has some incredible genes, he shaves his neck and maybe his cheeks.

    Maybe he uses a trimmer on the lowest setting so he merely cuts those parts down to short stubble but doesn’t actually shave them. Or maybe he uses an electric razor that keeps the blade from coming in direct contact with the skin, which according to Wikipedia is acceptable to some groups of Jews. But here’s the thing – if whatever he uses to “shave” his neck is allowed, then wouldn’t he be allowed to do the same thing to “shave” the rest of his face?

    Maybe we need a Jewish equivalent for the term “Cafeteria Catholic.” I might be wrong, but there doesn’t appear to be anything Jewish about the style of his beard. In my opinion, Chasin is just a guy who’s culturally Jewish and likes his beard.

    On a side note, I can understand why he’s willing to go to extremes in defense of his beard. I grew a beard for the first time in my life a few months ago and you wouldn’t believe the terrible comments people gave me. Multiply that over 20 years and I understand why he’s defensive of people telling him he must shave.

  • Chris Todd

    The article does mention that there are other types of masks that presumably would work with his beard, although it does imply that in certain circumstances, where one could not breath in any of the gases present, a person using the beard-accomodating mask would be risking exposure. So it really does look like it is a safety issue. The authorities don’t want to have to make time-consuming decisions at the site of a disaster as to whether the alternate mask would be safe enough in that instance. I can see their point.

  • Steven B. Chasin

    I would like to add a few things that weren’t conveyed by the article.

    I am not a firefighter, I am a civilian Paramedic. I am not cross trained as a firefighter.

    I am not trained to enter IDLH (Immediate Danger to Life and Health) atmospheres, nor trained in the use of SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus).

    The DC Fire and EMS Department ALLOWED beards for EVERYONE since the early 1980’s. When I was hired in 1990 (with a beard), they were allowed. Until the initial ban in 2001, it was estimated that a bit more than 1/3 of the Department had some type of beard.

    In 2001, the then fire chief instituted a GROOMING regulation whereby FIREFIGHTERS were to be clean shaven. (It was not applied to the civilian EMS providers). The original plaintiffs went to court, got a TRO, and again, the Department ALLOWED beards for ALL. Safety was not a primary reason given by the Department at that time. In fact, it was mentioned as an afterthought.

    In 2005, the Department re-issued the requirement for being clean shaven, applied it to ALL members of the Department, but this time gave the primary reason for the ban as “safety”, in an attempt to circumvent the court ruling and the existing law. The second group of plaintiffs, including myself, three other civilian Paramedics and another three firefighters, filed a second lawsuit which was combined with the first.

    OSHA regulations DO NOT apply to the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department. The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) DOES apply to the District of Columbia Fire Department.


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