A firefighter who made a “Nazarite vow” to God not to cut his hair after a “deep and life altering” religious experience has settled his lawsuit against the city of Utica, New York.
Represented by First Liberty Institute, John Brooks claim the Utica Fire Department subjected him to harassment.
The complaint said the department “discriminated against him because of his religion, they have denied him basic administrative remedies available to all city employees; they have disparaged his religious convictions in front of his fellow firefighters; they have denied him his medical benefits; they have refused him an allowance to UFD’s grooming policy given to other firefighters; they have crossed constitutional divide[s] between state and religion by becoming the arbiter of Nazarite religious practices and beliefs; they have threatened to discipline him for the exercise of his religious beliefs; they have denied him accommodations even though they have given other firefighters accommodations for the exercise of their religious beliefs; and most tragically, they have endangered his life.”
However, the settlement, announced Friday, confirmed a religious accommodation had been granted by the city.
“The city made the right choice to grant Mr. Brooks a religious accommodation,” said Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty. “Mr. Brooks just wants to be treated like every other firefighter and be safe. He is relieved that he will be able to continue to serve his community as a firefighter while also observing his religious beliefs.”
First Liberty explained Brooks’ vow comes from a biblical instruction in the Old Testament book of Numbers.
“The Utica Fire Department originally refused to grant Brooks a religious accommodation from its grooming standards and ordered Brooks either to cut his hair or wear a hair net at all times while on duty,” the legal group explained. “The hair net caused a life-threatening safety risk to Brooks when it interfered with his oxygen mask while Brooks was inside a structure fire.”
First Liberty noted female firefighters are allowed to have longer hair, and Brooks’ federal court complaint cited state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
During Brooks’ 12 years with UFD, the city has granted religious accommodations to firefighters of other faiths.
“I’m very grateful to First Liberty for all their help,” he said in a statement released through the institute. “All I ever wanted was for the city to accommodate my religious beliefs and treat me the same as other firefighters with long hair.”
He explains his promise not to cut his hair in a video:
And he explains his decision to become a firefighter:
The institute explained that Nazarite vows and practices are a minority among religious practices in the U.S., but the Constitution and New York’s Human Rights Law protect his rights to his beliefs.
“A Nazarite is a man or woman who makes a special vow to separate himself to God. A Nazarite vow usually includes dietary restrictions, such as not consuming alcohol, as well as allowing the hair of the head to grow uncut. Nazarite practices originate from the Jewish faith after Moses led the Isaelites out of Egyptian captivity,” the institute explained. “The Bible records the practices of such Nazarites as Samson, the prophet Samuel and John the Baptist.”
City officials had told Brooks that they had “investigated” Nazarite beliefs and concluded “many Nazarite do not strictly adhere to this particular aspect of their belief.”
Further, evidence showed the city’s counsel directed officials to “deprive” Brooks of his administrative remedies to the conflict “in an effort to suppress his religious speech and practices.”
Assistant Fire Chief George Clark at one point charged that “if it is determined you are not a Nazarite or have in fact never been a Nazarite, disciplinary action may also occur as a result of any deception that may have occurred.”