In his lawsuit, the 15-year veteran firefighter who also leads the Community Harvesters Church is suing the city and his superiors, Chief Scott Evans and Deputy Chief Thomas Culleny Jr., for threatening to suspend him without pay unless he shaves the beard he began growing when he came to believe that God requires it.
His employer's refusal to accommodate him violates his religious freedoms under the First Amendment and is also a violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, Smith argues.
Smith serves as a Police and Firemen's Chaplain for Atlantic City. He explained that although he doesn’t require all the men in his Pentecostal church to wear a beard, he believes Scripture supports his position.
“This is my stance, scripturally,” he said. “I believe that it is a requirement because it is a natural occurrence. It’s the way that God created us. In the Old Testament, it was forbidden to cut your beard. That was a forbidden practice. So most of the prophets, Aaron, Moses, Jesus Christ Himself, according to my research and study of the Bible, they wore beards following the Jewish law.”
“Right, but some of the things that are written in the Scripture, it applies to Gentiles also," Smith responded when it was noted that he himself is a Gentile, not a Jew. "It’s not my personal belief, it is Scriptural what I believe about facial hair. It’s based off what I’ve studied.”
Smith also explained that the majority of photos of him on social media show him without a beard because, for the bulk of his tenure as a firefighter, he was in fire suppression, which requires wearing a mask that is not compatible with beards.
About three years ago, he explained, he got a promotion and is now an air mask technician, a position that does not involve going to fires, actively fighting them, and relying on a mask to do so:
“For the past three years I’ve been a part of fire administration. And with my current job, responsibility and duties, I don’t go into fires as an air mask technician. I was trained to be a firefighter and to fight fires, that’s true, but with the promotion I received, over the past three and a half years, I haven’t been required to go into fires, I haven’t taken the fit test, for those reasons."
According to the lawsuit, Smith requested special accommodation for his 3-inch beard from the city on January 3rd, since beards are prohibited by the fire department’s guidelines. His request was denied on February 15th, however, due to “overwhelming safety concerns.”
“When I was in suppression, I didn’t have support and I wasn’t willing to fight the issue," Smith said, explaining why he had never sought accommodation before. "But since I’ve been moved, I didn’t think, as a matter of fact, I consulted with the city attorney before I asked for an accommodation and he told me that it was an easy situation. There was an exception for religious reasons and I shouldn’t have a problem but lo and behold, here we are filing a lawsuit because they denied my accommodation."
For now, Smith is now required to be clean-shaven at work. His attorney, Luna Droubi, has filed a request for a temporary restraining order against the shaving requirement until his lawsuit is resolved, but Smith must prove he would face irreparable injury and that his constitutional rights would be violated in order for the restraining order to be granted.
“I feel strong in faith," Smith said of his convictions. "I feel liberated and I am able to without shame, express and to really show people part of who I really am and what I really believe in."
“I was hoping that it wouldn’t go to this level and I tried to do everything in my power…I tried my best to avoid legal action but…I had to do it,” he said of the lawsuit. “I have a family. I have responsibilities that I have to take care of. I can’t afford to be suspended without pay. I was pretty much under duress."