Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007 | 10 p.m.
A Metro Police officer, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, has filed a lawsuit alleging that his department violated his civil rights by forbidding him from growing a beard and covering his head, as required by his faith.
Detective Steve Riback, a 10-year Metro veteran and an Orthodox Jew, said he was sad and frustrated. “There is no reasonableness on the part of the department,” Riback said. “They're just digging their heels into the ground whether they're right or wrong.”
Riback was ordered to shave his beard in late November. Metro allows beards only for medical reasons or for undercover work. The beard had not been a problem for the three years that Riback worked undercover in the vice unit; but he switched to the quality assurance office, which reviews Metro policies.
He removed the beard but requested a religious accommodation. Metro had not mentioned the yarmulke Riback wore to work, but in his request, he also sought permission to continue wearing the covering.
After a month without a decision from the department, Riback filed a complaint asking the Nevada Equal Rights Commission to mediate the dispute. Metro declined mediation and soon after denied Riback permission to grow a short beard or wear a head covering of any type.
Metro's employment diversity director, Walter Norris, wrote Riback in late January saying, “Law enforcement must remain religion neutral.”
At the time, Metro allowed officers, including uniformed patrolmen, to wear service pins, such as ones from the International Fellowship of Christian Police Officers, which have the group's name and a picture of an open Bible.
Metro changed that rule in April, days after the Sun wrote about Riback's complaint and Metro's policies of allowing officers to wear pins and plain hats indoors. Police must doff caps and can no longer wear the pins. The department said the rule change was not related to Riback's complaints.
Riback's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court Tuesday, asks for an injunction ordering Metro to allow Riback to grow a beard and wear a hat before the case goes to trial.
Under federal law, employers must make “reasonable accommodation” for employees to practice their religion so long as it is not an undue hardship for the employer.
ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein, who is representing Riback, said there is “overwhelming law on this point.”
Lichtenstein argued that allowing Riback to wear a beard and a plain baseball cap would hardly be a disruptive religious display.
“Most people I see with hats, the most I can tell about them is that they're Cubs fans, which may require a certain leap of faith, but we'll leave that alone, religiously,” the attorney said.
Liesl Freedman, Metro's general counsel, had not seen the suit and declined to comment.
Riback said this week that he hopes that before the case goes to trial, the department will yield by crafting policy to accommodate religious beliefs.
“At this point we want to make sure a precedent is set for future people, not just in Judaism but in any religion,” Riback said. “So that it's not just, ‘Steve's allowed to do this today, but two years from now, we're going to flip this around.'
“I feel like a part of me has been taken away on a daily basis, every day for nine months,” Riback said. “A piece of me, of who I am, is being stripped away from me without my input.”
Brendan Buhler can be reached at 474-7406 or at [email protected]