Muslim Claims Discrimination by Sheriff Joe Arpaio Over Beard Led to Harassment and Demotion

Sinan Fazlovic, a Bosnian Muslim who moved to the United States in 1999, thought he had an understanding about his long beard when he was hired in 2005 as a jail guard for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Otherwise, he wouldn't have taken the job, he says in a lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

Without one negative word about his prolific facial hair, the sheriff's office hired him, the lawsuit says. He reported to Detention Officer Academy on July 19, 2005 and the experience went well -- for about a week. Then, one day, he bumped into Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Arpaio walked up to him and asked him who he was. The next thing he knew, he was being hauled into the office of Deputy Chief Tiffani Shaw, the hiring supervisor.

She told Fazlovic to shave the beard or he'd be fired, the lawsuit says:

Plaintiff reminded Shaw that he was assured when hired that he could maintain the beard in accordance with his faith. Without explanation, Defendant Shaw insisted that Plaintiff would have to shave his beard to conform to directions from Defendant Sheriff Arpaio; Shaw did not provide any written information.

Shaw filed an official memo to his Shaw, requesting to keep the beard based on his religion and reminding her he'd had the beard approved by the folks who hired him. Fazlovic claims Shaw later told him that if he had to don a breathing a mask in an emergency, the beard would prevent a good seal.

The lawsuit says OSHA doesn't share that concern.

The sheriff's office denied Fazlovic's request on August 4, sparking him to shoot off an internal grievance. Fazlovic thinks his further appeals were denied directly by either Arpaio of Chief Deputy Dave Hendershott. With no options left but to quit, Fazlovic reached for a razor.

Faced with the threat of termination for insubordination Plaintiff shaved his beard. This caused Plaintiff great emotional distress and mental anguish given his deep religious beliefs and strong commitment to and practice of his Muslim faith.

Soon after, in September of 2005, the sheriff's office became a no-grow zone -- all employees were suddenly banned from sporting facial hair. Fazlovic kept up his internal appeals for an exception based on his religious convictions. He was told no exception could be granted for a detention officer in the jail, so he applied for other positions of equal status. Those applications were denied.

Fazlovic grew frustrated. This is no ordinary soul patch we're talking about here: He really, really needed that fuzz.

Again citing the lawsuit:

On or about December 15, 2006, the extreme mental anguish and emotional distress that Plaintiff had been suffering since shaving his beard became unbearable. Despite the need for a job and concerns about support for his family, he could no longer violate the teachings and commandments of his religion, and Plaintiff began to re-grow his beard.

The sheriff's office soon transferred him out of the jail and into an office gig, but told him it was just temporary -- they demanded that he transfer into a job that paid a whole lot less. Fazlovic resisted, filing more grievances (that were later denied). He filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September of 2006.

A year later, he was given a week to either shave his beard or accept a demotion and corresponding reduction in pay. He took the crappier job. But that wasn't good enough -- weeks later, his bosses demanded he take an ever lower-paying job, according to the suit. He ultimately resigned.

The sheriff's office returned our phone call on this one: See the updated post.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.