The first step in the reinstatement of a Chabad-Lubavitch New York City Police Cadet was handed down in a ruling on Friday by a federal district Judge in Manhattan who upheld the constitutional claim of the cadet that his First Amendment rights were denied.
Fishel Litzman was “thrown out” of the Police Academy for refusing to trim his beard to one millimeter in length, said Nathan Lewin, Litzman’s attorney. Litzman has never trimmed his beard, as is customary with Chabad Chasidim, but even so, it naturally only grows about a half inch from his skin. Judge Harold Baer noted that there are many exceptions to the New York City Police Department’s unpublished rule limiting facial hair to a one millimeter length and the rule was not applied uniformly.
Lewin said that “Judge Baer’s opinion properly emphasizes the discrepancy between the NYPD’s announced limitation on facial hair and the Department’s failure to enforce that rule against officers other than Fishel Litzman.”
“This is a great day for religious freedom in America,” Litzman, 39, said of the decision that “will enable me to carry out my life-long dream of serving the people of the City of New York as a uniformed police officer. I am very grateful for the support I received from those inside and outside the New York City Police Department during this long ordeal.”
“The Lubavitch standard does not allow him to trim his beard,” Lewin told The Jewish Star. “He applied for religious accommodation. He had been training for months and was at the top of his class. It was his life-long ambition to be a New York City Police Officer. It was unconstitutional to throw him out — of course they have to take him back.”
The next step for Lewin, who has argued 27 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and is widely known as a champion of civil rights and Jewish causes, is to file a proposed order requesting that Litzman be reinstated.
Litzman, a resident of Monsey and father of five, worked since 2002 for Maimonides Medical Center as a paramedic and from 2006 for New York Presbyterian Hospital and the village of Kiryas Joel as well. In 2009 he took the Police Officer exam and scored 97.6 percent. In 2011 he was called for a medical exam and when he asked if he could keep his beard was told to request religious accommodation and did, but was not told that he would have to shave or trim his beard.
Litzman was accepted to the Police Academy and began studies there on Jan. 9, 2012, as a NYPD Probationary Police Officer and resigned from his jobs as a paramedic. Three times during January he was summoned to NYPD Headquarters and told to trim his beard; he explained that he could not for religious reasons. He was terminated in June 2012 just short of his graduation from his class of 850 where he ranked in the top 1 percent.
In the complaint to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, Lewin noted that LItzman was not given advance notice, that there is no known written regulation to this effect and no reason for it. He also pointed out that police in Washington, D.C., can wear beards and religious garb such as turbans.
Lewin stated it violates the constitutional right to free exercise of religion, effectively excluding Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and Muslims, and is “arbitrary and irrational.” It also deprives Litzman of the “opportunity to serve as a NYC Police Officer because of his religious observance,” denying him the “rights, privileges and immunities secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
The stated policy also only requires a one-time trim of the beard, and “no legitimate governmental policy supports such a one time requirement,” Lewin said.