When is a beard a religious beard?

56114This is one of the strangest stories that has come my way in a long time. First of all, it's a religion-in-the-workplace story about a conflict here in Washington, D.C., yet the mainstream news coverage that I can find is from the DC bureau of The Jerusalem Post. On one level, "Fighting for their whiskers " is a story that asks an important question and that issue dominates the lede:

Steven Chasin is the first to admit he isn't the world's most observant Jew.

Tattoos, a Jewish taboo, cover his burly body, while his shaved head goes bare. He doesn't go to synagogue every Shabbat or keep all the laws of kashrut. ...

"I'm not the perfect Jew," is how Chasin, a 40-year-old Fire Department paramedic from Virginia, puts it. But he has always strongly identified as one, and used outward symbols to reinforce the point, including the Star of David pendant that hangs around his neck and the full, brown beard that has graced his face for the past two decades.

"The beard is my way of celebrating and practicing," he explains. "The beard is making up for some of the stuff I don't do."

So, when is a beard a religious beard? More on that in a minute.

Chasin's his superiors insist that they are demanding that he shave the beard because of safety regulations. It seems that the powers that be are afraid that beards interfere with oxygen masks. Thus, we read:

... Chasin, along with six Muslims and Nazarene Christians, filed suit, charging that they should be accommodated on grounds of religious freedom. The District of Columbia District Court has sided with them, but the city is appealing. A hearing is scheduled for October 7. The fire department argues that a beard can interfere with certain gas and oxygen masks that need an airtight seal with one's face to work.

Later, there's this:

Chasin's lawyer, Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, says freedom of religion statutes mean fire department and other workplaces must make "reasonable accommodation" of religious beliefs. In this case, he says there was no question about the sincerity of those religious beliefs on the part of any of the plaintiffs, and that "the real issue isn't the sincerity of the belief, but whether the belief can be accommodated."

In this case, so far, the court has said it can. Continuing to work with a beard while the matter is pending has had its ups and downs, according to Chasin, with some co-workers being supportive and some looking askance. But the bottom line, he says, is that "standing up for our beliefs is what it came down to. It doesn't matter -- being Jewish, being Muslim, being Nazarene -- we stood up for what we believe is right and didn't let them bully us."

So we have a very interesting story here, based on an important question in laws affecting faith in the work place: How orthodox does a believer have to be in order to claim faith as a defense in a case like this? Is simple sincerity enough? Chasin is, in effect, standing up in defense of his own version of Judaism. Can he be a movement of one?

Meanwhile, there is a real puzzler of a reference in this story that I want to note, because it raises another question. What in the world is a "Nazarene" beard?

Folks, I have visited a bunch of campuses associated with the evangelical Protestant Church of the Nazarene and I have never heard of such a thing. I mean, think about it. If "orthodox" Nazarenes are supposed to have beards, then why doesn't Dr. James Dobson have a beard?

No, no, no! This has nothing to do with the fact that Dobson is not ordained (cue: rim shot).

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