A firefighter and Pentecostal pastor who was denied an accommodation to grow a beard says his religious freedom was violated because the Bible requires facial hair for men.
“It affects me tremendously because it is my beliefs and convictions. I don’t feel that I should have to compromise what I believe, what I am convicted of spiritually because a policy is in place that is not willing to give an accommodation. That affects me tremendously,” Alexander Smith, 42, said in an interview with The Christian Post on Thursday.
In the lawsuit which was filed last week, according to NJ.com, the 15-year veteran firefighter who also leads the Community Harvesters Church in Atlantic City, is suing the city and his superiors, Chief Scott Evans and Deputy Chief Thomas Culleny Jr. for threatening to suspend him without pay unless he shaves the beard he insists he grew for religious reasons.
The request from his bosses violates his religious freedoms under the First Amendment and is also a violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, he argues.
Smith who is pursuing a Masters of Divinity from Rockbridge Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, and serves as a Police and Firemens Chaplain for Atlantic City, explained to CP that while he doesn’t require all the men in his Pentecostal church to wear a beard, Scripture supports his position.
“This is my stance, scripturally,” he said. “I believe that it is a requirement because it is a natural occurrence. It’s the way that God created us. In the Old Testament, it was forbidden to cut your beard. That was a forbidden practice. So most of the prophets, Aaron, Moses, Jesus Christ Himself, according to my research and study of the Bible, they wore beards following the Jewish law.”
When it was noted that he is not a Jew but a Gentile, he responded: “Right, but some of the things that are written in the Scripture, it applies to Gentiles also. It’s not my personal belief, it is Scriptural what I believe about facial hair. It’s based off what I’ve studied.”
According to Heath Henning of Truth Watchers, a website on Christian culture and theology: “To the Jewish concept as presented in the Old Testament, a shaved beard was a reason for embarrassment to the Jews (2 Sam. 10:4-5), and to the mid-eastern culture it was to represent defeat (Isa. 7:20). Shaving off ones beard was self-inflicted only for the purpose of cleansing from plagues according the Levitical laws (Lev. 14:9), or mourning (Ezra 9:3; Isa. 15:2).”
He argued that historically men in the early church also wore beards.
Apologetics website, Revelation.co, notes that, “God’s word reveals that beards are a blessing to men, which is sadly forgotten in today’s age. While not required, growing a beard can, in a sense, give honor and glory to a God who created man with that ability. Not out of requirement, not out of salvation, but out of appreciation for God giving man that distinction.”
When asked why all his photos on social media show him without a beard, Smith said before he became a firefighter he wore one for religious reasons.
“I have pictures to prove that I had facial hair and I wore a beard for religious reasons,” he said.
“I don’t have my beard [in the photos] and the reason why is for the first 12 years of my career, I was in fire suppression. Fire suppression is when you are stationed at the fire houses. [During] this time your primary responsibility is either if we have a fire, to go in and extinguish the fire, or to perform search and rescue depending on whether you are in an engine company or a ladder company,” he said.
About three years ago Smith said, he got a promotion, and is no longer fighting fires.
“For the past three years I’ve been a part of fire administration. And with my current job, responsibility and duties, I don’t go into fires as an air mask technician. I was trained to be a firefighter and to fight fires, that’s true, but with the promotion I received, over the past three and a half years, I haven’t been required to go into fires, I haven’t taken the fit test, for those reasons,” he said.
While he was on vacation from his $115,000 a year job as an air mask technician with the fire department in December however, Smith said he felt it was safe for him to publicly express his religious belief on beards again, but his superiors at the Atlantic City Fire Department wouldn’t accommodate him.
His lawsuit said he tried to get special accommodation for his 3-inch beard from the city on Jan. 3 since beards are prohibited by the fire department’s guidelines. His request was denied on Feb. 15, however due to “overwhelming safety concerns” for Smith, as well as other firefighters, the lawsuit said. Facial hair can affect the seal of the breathing apparatus mask firefighters wear when they face fires.
When asked why he didn’t previously ask for any special accommodation, Smith said he didn’t feel he would be supported.
“When I was in suppression, I didn’t have support and I wasn’t willing to fight the issue. But since I’ve been moved, I didn’t think, as a matter of fact, I consulted with the city attorney before I asked for an accommodation and he told me that it was an easy situation. There was an exception for religious reasons and I shouldn’t have a problem but lo and behold, here we are filing a lawsuit because they denied my accommodation,” he said.
“All the guys on my job, they know that I’m a pastor or what have you and I was on vacation and I decided to regrow my beard,” Smith said.
He said on Thursday, he was in court with his boss in a mediation process seeking to resolve the issue but they refused to accommodate him.
“They pretty much are sticking to the decision that they made to deny the accommodation,” he said. “They didn’t offer much of anything.”
Due to the denial of his religious accommodation, Smith is now required to show up for work clean shaven. Smith’s attorney, Luna Droubi, has filed a request seeking a temporary restraining order against the shaving requirement until his lawsuit is resolved, allowing him to keep his beard for now.
Smith must prove he would face irreparable injuries and that his constitutional rights would be violated in order for a temporary restraining order to be granted.
With his beard, Smith said: “I feel strong in faith. I feel liberated and I am able to without shame, express and to really show people part of who I really am and what I really believe in.
“I was hoping that it wouldn’t go to this level and I tried to do everything in my power … I tried my best to avoid legal action but … I had to do it,” he said of the lawsuit.
“I have a family. I have responsibilities that I have to take care of. I can’t afford to be suspended without pay. I was pretty much under duress,” he said.