Judge: Detective's beard OK

The First Amendment gives a Las Vegas police detective the right to wear a beard for religious reasons, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, but a jury must decide whether he has the right to wear a yarmulke on the job.

Detective Steve Riback, an observant Orthodox Jew whose position in the office of quality assurance does not require him to wear a uniform, filed a lawsuit last year that accused the Metropolitan Police Department of religious discrimination. Riback took the action after department officials denied his requests to wear a beard and head covering at work.

In Wednesday's ruling, U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt concluded that the department's no-beard policy violated the First Amendment right of religious freedom.

"Metro must allow Riback to wear a beard while in Quality Assurance, subject to the same restrictions on officers who wear beards for secular reasons," the judge wrote.

Attorney Craig Anderson, who represents the department, said he does not know whether Hunt's ruling would allow Riback to wear a beard while in uniform.

Hunt noted in the order that Riback had formally asked the court only for permission to wear a beard while in his current assignment.

"Consequently, the scope of the court's decision is limited to his assignment in Quality Assurance," the judge wrote.

At a hearing in November, Hunt issued a preliminary injunction that allowed Riback to wear a quarter-inch beard until the case was resolved. Riback, 32, said he has worn a short beard since the ruling.

The detective was transferred to quality assurance in October 2006.

At the time, according to his lawsuit, the Police Department had a personnel policy that prohibited officers from wearing beards but provided waivers for officers who needed to wear facial hair for medical reasons.

According to Hunt's order, the judge recognizes the importance of religious neutrality for police officers but found that "people are unlikely to view a closely trimmed beard ... as a religious symbol."

"This is especially true if other officers wear beards for medical reasons, because there is nothing to indicate that one beard is worn for secular reasons while the other is for religious," Hunt wrote.

The judge acknowledged that the department has a "significant" interest in its officers "maintaining a uniform personal appearance." However, he wrote, "Metro fails to explain why religious beards undermine this interest, but medical beards do not."

Al Marquis, another attorney representing the department, said the beard policy has changed. Now officers who must wear facial hair for medical reasons are placed on light duty in positions that do not require uniforms.

"We view the ruling as pertaining to the past policy," Marquis said. "It should not impact Metro in the future."

Allen Lichtenstein, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada who represents Riback, and the department's lawyers all said Hunt's ruling pleased them.

"We knocked out seven of (Riback's) nine claims," Anderson said.

Lichtenstein said his client asked for two accommodations, and Hunt granted one while allowing the other to go to trial.

"We are gratified that the judge ruled that when the Police Department allows beards for medical reasons that they can't discriminate by prohibiting them for religious reasons," Lichtenstein said. "We look forward to the trial on the question of the yarmulke and believe that the outcome at trial will again be favorable to Detective Riback."

A yarmulke is a skullcap worn by Jewish men and boys. Riback said he would be willing to wear a baseball cap rather than a yarmulke.

According to Hunt's order, the department's headgear policy applies to all officers, "and there is no evidence that it is motivated by religious animus."

A trial in the case is set to begin Oct. 20.

Riback, who joined the department more than 10 years ago, said he filed the lawsuit not only for himself but for officers of all faiths.

"This is not just a Jewish issue," he said.

The detective said his religion did not conflict with his job in the beginning, but he has become more observant in recent years.

Riback said a head covering serves to remind Orthodox Jews that God is always above them, and Orthodox Jews believe Hebrew Scripture forbids shaving one's face.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0264.