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Monday, October 4, 1999 Published at 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK

World: Americas

Supreme court backs beards

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision

The US Supreme Court has ruled that two Muslim policemen have the right to wear beards.

The court upheld the ruling of an earlier court that a ban on beards would violate the officers' freedom of religion.

The police department in Newark, New Jersey has barred officers from wearing beards since 1971, although moustaches and sideburns are permitted.

Officers Shakoor Mustafa and Faruq Abdul-Aziz are Sunni Muslims who say their religion requires them to wear beards.

[ image: Faruq Abdul-Aziz was told he couldn't be an officer with a beard]
Faruq Abdul-Aziz was told he couldn't be an officer with a beard
Both said they wore beards while serving on the force for at least 10 years, but that in 1997 the police chief issued a new "zero tolerance" policy on facial hair.

The policy contained an exception for officers with medical conditions that keep them from shaving, but it did not contain a religious exemption.

Their lawsuit said enforcement of the no-beards policy violated their right to freely exercise their religion.

A federal judge ruled for the two officers, and the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals agreed last year.

[ image: Newark Police Chief Anthony Ambrose limits himself to a moustache]
Newark Police Chief Anthony Ambrose limits himself to a moustache
The two officers "are entitled to a religious exemption since the department already makes secular exemptions," the appeals court said.

In its latest appeal, the police department's lawyers said the no-beard policy is intended to present a "professional and dignified image to the public" and establish discipline and solidarity within the ranks.

Officers given medical exemptions are transferred to administrative duties with little contact with the public, the Police Department's lawyers said.

The two officers' lawyers argued that officers with medical reasons for wearing beards were wrongly treated more leniently than those who wear beards for religious reasons.

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