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Philadelphia Inquirer: Court Hears Arguments Over Muslim Officer’s Head Scarf

By Robert Moran
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

A three-judge appellate panel heard arguments today on whether to reopen a case concerning an Islamic Philadelphia police officer who wants to wear a religious head scarf while on duty.
Last year, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a suit filed by Officer Kimberlie Webb, writing that the Police Department could “subordinate individuality to its paramount group mission” of protecting lives and property.

Attorney Jeffrey M. Pollock, representing Webb in her appeal, told the judges from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals today that the case represented a “fundamental liberty right” and asked the judges whether wearing a scarf is “such a violent religious symbol that we can’t tolerate that?”

Eleanor Ewing, a lawyer for the city, said the uniform policy was intended to maintain religious neutrality. Decisions about what officers are allowed to wear should be left to the police commissioner.

However, Pollock said the department has tacitly allowed officers to wear Christian crosses and angel pins and ash on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday.

Webb, 46 and a mother of six, became a Muslim in 1995, the same year she joined the Police Department.

In court today, she wore her traditional “khimar” over her hair and around her neck. In Islam, it is part of the “hijab,” which is a word for modesty in clothing.

For work, she has custom khimar with a velcro fastener so that it breaks away if someone grabs at it. It is also less noticeable under a police hat than her other scarves.

Outside of court, Webb said she has been allowed to pray in Muslim fashion at the 35th Police District station where she works.

She wrote memos requesting that she be granted permission to wear her scarf on duty. “They just said no,” she said.

After Muslim men on the force were allowed to wear beards, which required a policy change to accommodate them, she decided she had a right to wear a khimar.

In 2003, she appeared at work three days in a row with her khimar. Each time she was told to remove it and she refused. And each time she was sent home. She then received a suspension.

She filed a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and won. Then she sued.

Her civil case was based on a narrow claim and did not allege violations of her constitutional right to freedom of religion and speech, which her new attorneys are now asserting.

Ewing, the city’s attorney, called the appeal “a request for a do-over” and a request for the judges to consider facts and arguments not introduced in the original case.

Webb is being represented pro bono by Pollock, a New York attorney, and Seval Yildirim, a professor at Whitter Law School in California.

Pollack said the appeals court probably will rule in 60 to 90 days.

Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.

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