The case of Kimberlie Webb — the Philadelphia Police officer whose department superiors disciplined her for wearing a hijab (a Moslem headscarf) while on duty — took a new twist on April 12, when the Third Circuit Court rejected her last ditch appeal.
Ms. Webb’s case has stirred debate among religious discrimination scholars and ideological advocates alike. The situation began when she refused to remove her headscarf while on patrol; this act violated Philadelphia’s City Police Directive #78, which prohibits on-duty officers from wearing religious symbols. Ms. Webb’s supervisors reprimanded her in accordance with the regulation. To protest this response, she brought her complaint to the Philadelphia Police Commissioner. But although the Commissioner was himself a Moslem, he refused to exculpate her and instead ordered her suspended for two weeks.
Lawsuit and Appeal
Ms. Webb then filed a religious discrimination claim against the city, citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in her legal argument. (Some case commentators who specialize in workplace discrimination theory objected to this strategy as imprecise. They argued that Ms. Webb should have filed a claim pursuant to the First Amendment.) In any event, the case was rejected. Ms. Webb then appealed to the Third Circuit Court, which upheld the decision of the lower court that the disciplinary actions taken against her were indeed legal and Constitutional.
The main reason Ms. Webb’s seemingly reasonable request to wear religious garb on the job was denied has to do with a concept called religious neutrality. Basically, police officers are supposed to act as neutral enforcers of the law — they cannot be seen as endorsing a certain religion by advertising its symbols (e.g. Moslem hijab, Christian cross, Jewish yarmulke). In other words, a law enforcement agent must play the role of a religiously neutral official, even if her personal convictions are strongly religious.
Indeed, even though Ms. Webb lost her religious discrimination suit, the fact that the Court denied her request can, in a sense, be seen as good news for advocates of freedom of expression, in that the Court explicitly valued this principle of religious neutrality as profoundly important.