Philadelphia firefighter Curtis DeVaux was forced to choose between his job and his religion, and the devout Muslim stuck to his beliefs.
DeVaux was suspended without pay in February when he refused to comply with Philadelphia fire department safety standards, which dictate that a breathing apparatus worn by firefighters must be in direct contact with the skin.
Although DeVaux agreed to the clean-shaven rule when he first joined the fire department two years ago, he now does not believe facial hair interferes with the proper functioning of the masks.
"What changed, basically, was the fact that I did research and found there were other departments that allowed bearded firefighters," DeVaux said today on ABC News' "Good Morning America."
"Also, I investigated the safety aspect," he said. "Something else that I investigated also was the legal aspect. And once I saw I did have not only a personal belief, but I had legal rights as far as the issue was concerned, I determined that I was able to pursue it."
Out of Date?
In a grievance filed against the Philadelphia fire department, DeVaux argued that the department's rules are out of date and don't apply to firefighting equipment currently in use. DeVaux said modern firefighting equipment can support different facial features.
DeVaux's attorney, Mary Catherine Roper from the American Civil Liberties Union, said she and DeVaux are not accusing the department of racial bias, but of being slow to adapt to change, much as they were with women and other minorities.
"We brought in [to a Philadelphia court] an expert who is a 40-year veteran of the New York City fire department and a recognized expert in safety, and he said there is no reason why with the modern firefighting equipment Curtis should not be able to serve safely," Roper told "GMA."
If given the opportunity, DeVaux said, he could prove his beard does not pose any threat to his safety.
But Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and the Philadelphia fire department say DeVaux's facial hair may not only compromise his own safety, but also that of other firefighters and the people they are trying to save.
"The testing isn't even permitted with beards because we want the maximum safety," Ayers said. "It's the maximum safety we were after.
Ayers said other Muslim firefighters don't have a problem with the rule, and said if DeVaux is uncomfortable, perhaps he should think about another job.