As an observant Orthodox Jew, Steve Riback must cover his head and abstain from shaving. As a detective in the Metropolitan Police Department, he is prohibited from wearing a cap or beard.
The conflicting roles lie at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed this week by Riback, a nine-year veteran of the department who contends he is experiencing religious discrimination on the job.
“I just never thought in my wildest dreams it would have gotten to this point,” Riback said Wednesday. “That’s for certain.”
The 31-year-old detective said he tried repeatedly to meet with his superiors and negotiate a compromise before resorting to litigation.
“This is a result directly of their actions, or their inaction to handle the matter correctly,” he said.
Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, who are representing Riback, are seeking a preliminary injunction that would prohibit police officials from disciplining the detective for wearing either a short beard or a yarmulke at work. A yarmulke is a skullcap worn by Jewish men and boys.
“He has now been going to work for almost seven months with no beard and no head covering in violation of his religion, and is daily suffering irreparable harm to his emotional and spiritual well-being, and his constitutional rights,” the lawsuit alleges.
Liesl Freedman, the Police Department’s general counsel, said she had not seen the lawsuit but did not wish to comment on pending litigation. Regarding the department’s policies, she said: “It’s a paramilitary organization, and we remain religion-neutral. And that’s important.”
Riback disputes the assertion that the department is religion-neutral. Until recently, he said, the department allowed uniformed officers to wear an International Fellowship of Christian Police Officers pin that featured an open Bible.
Shortly after Riback pointed out the contradictory policies, he said, department officials decided to prohibit officers from wearing the pin.
Attorney Allen Lichtenstein said neither Riback nor the ACLU asked for the ban. Riback said the policy change has put him in an uncomfortable position with his co-workers.
“My immediate colleagues are very supportive, but there’s certainly a stigma and a monkey on my back,” he said.
Under the law, Lichtenstein said, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practices unless the employer cannot do so without undue hardship.
Riback said his religion did not conflict with his job when he began working for the department.
“Within the past five years or so, I progressively became more and more observant,” he said.
During that time, Riback was assigned to the department’s vice squad, where he wore a beard and baseball cap as part of his undercover disguise. His appearance did not become an issue until October, when he was transferred to his current job with the office of quality assurance. Riback’s lawsuit describes the new position as a “non-uniformed desk job with little or no interaction with the public.”
For his first few weeks in the new position, according to the lawsuit, Riback wore a yarmulke and a close-cropped beard that was shorter than the one he wore in his undercover position.
“At the time, Metro had a personnel policy that prohibited all officers from wearing beards but provided for waivers for officers who must wear facial hair for medical reasons,” according to the lawsuit. “Detective Riback is personally aware of several officers with beards who work a uniformed duty.”
Riback knew of no policy at the time that “forbade the wearing of hats by non-uniformed officers under any circumstances,” according to his lawsuit, and uniformed officers were allowed to wear baseball caps with some restrictions. In May, according to the lawsuit, the department changed its “civilian clothing” policy to forbid the wearing of any hats while indoors.
Not long after starting his desk job, according to the lawsuit, Riback was instructed to shave his beard. He did, but he submitted a request to the department’s diversity director for a religious accommodation to wear a “neat beard.” Also, he inquired about his right to wear a yarmulke.
According to the lawsuit, Riback’s request to wear a beard was denied, and he was informed for the first time that he was not allowed to wear a yarmulke. Riback said he later asked for permission to wear a plain baseball cap, but that request also was denied.
“What Steve is asking for is very, very limited,” Lichtenstein said.
Riback said the head covering serves to remind Orthodox Jews that God is always above them, and Orthodox Jews believe the Hebrew Bible forbids shaving one’s face.
Lichtenstein said Riback has “scrupulously complied” with the decisions of department officials, “even though he feels his rights were violated.”
“He is trying to vindicate his rights through proper channels,” the lawyer said.
Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, described Riback as a “stellar police officer” committed to a career in law enforcement.
“This is exactly the kind of guy that the department should be doing everything in its power to keep and advance,” Peck said.
The lawsuit names Sheriff Doug Gillespie, Capt. Stavros Anthony and Walter Norris, director of the department’s office of employment diversity, as defendants. In addition to its claim of religious discrimination, the lawsuit accuses the defendants of retaliating against Riback for complaining about the discrimination.
“The clumsy way Metro handled officer Riback’s case is deeply disappointing,” Peck said. “It indicates that whatever progress has been made at the department concerning diversity issues, it still has a long way to go to live up to its own professed ideals.”