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Hasidic NYPD recruit says he was fired over beard length

From Julia Greenberg, CNN
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Mon June 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fishel Litzman was asked to leave the police academy Friday, his attorney says
  • Litzman is an Orthodox Hasidic Jew
  • The NYPD says it makes reasonable accommodations for beards

New York (CNN) -- A Hasidic NYPD recruit is planning a lawsuit after being dismissed for refusing to trim his beard for religious reasons, his attorney said Sunday.

Fishel Litzman, 38, was asked to leave the police academy on Friday, his attorney, Nathan Lewin, told CNN. He began the police academy in January, he said, was in the top 1% of his classes and is "highly regarded" by his peers.

The dismissal, Lewin said, is a clear example of "religious discrimination."

"We are planning to bring a lawsuit," the attorney said. "This should not be a practice of the NYPD."

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said in a statement the department "makes reasonable accommodations in this regard." Beards for religious purposes are to be kept to 1 millimeter in length, he said, adding that there are other Hasidic and Orthodox uniformed members who observe the accommodation.

Litzman "did not comply with the NYPD's reasonable accommodation to keep his beard trimmed," Browne said. "He did not keep it trimmed to 1mm and he stated that it was his intention to never cut or trim his beard."

But Litzman said as an Orthodox Hasidic Jew, "I have left my beard natural all my life. It's the law of the Torah."

In a March 18 statement to NYPD officials, provided to CNN by Lewin, Litzman wrote, "It is absolutely forbidden in my religious beliefs to cut or trim my beard in any way."

When Litzman received the phone call that he was accepted into the police academy, it was the "happiest day of my life," he said. "The impact you can make in the community in a neighborhood and a people ... you can truly make a direct impact on a whole entire community as a police officer."

Litzman wrote that after receiving a 97.6% on his entrance exam last year, he "inquired about keeping my naturally short beard intact" and filled out a religious accommodation form. He received a short letter saying the matter would be addressed when he became a recruit.

After being selected for the 2012 class, the father of five said he resigned his job. "Since I had applied for an exemption before I was accepted and had already been photographed, I believed that the NYPD was aware of my religious needs and accepted me knowing I needed to keep my beard intact," he wrote.

While in classes, Litzman three times was told he would have to cut or shave his beard, he said. Each time, he refused, citing his religious beliefs, Lewin said. He was also punished with the loss of two vacation days, according to Litzman's memo.

He noted that other officers have beards, adding, "I was told many times in the academy, 'Cut your beard, after the academy you'll never have to,'" Litzman said. "It's an unenforced rule."

"I cannot, as a matter of religious conscience, follow that instruction because I may not trim my beard even temporarily to complete the academy," he wrote.

"One of the points that has been drilled home during my short time at the academy is the need to represent the NYPD with integrity," Litzman wrote to police officials. "Although not knowing whether I will be punished for maintaining my religious beliefs has been very taxing on me and my family, I will not waver in my firm belief that I can be a successful member of the NYPD and an Orthodox (Hasidic) Jew at the same time."

He said that as his academic and physical scores show, "I am focused on dedicating myself to being the best probationary police officer I can be."

Asked if other factors could have contributed to Litzman's dismissal, Lewin said, "I don't think it's anything else ... He would -- will be, I believe -- an outstanding police officer."

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said in a statement Sunday he was "deeply troubled" by the reports Litzman was fired for refusing to trim his beard.

"The NYPD has done a commendable job in recent years of building a police force that tries to reflect the populations that they serve," Stringer said. "Fishel Litzman should be no exception. I urge the police commissioner to reconsider this case as well as the NYPD's rules about religious accommodation more broadly and, in so doing, to make a clear statement in support of religious expression for all."

CNN's Chris Dignam contributed to this report.

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