The Rutherford Institute & ACLU Defend Jewish Detective’s Right to Wear Head Covering

Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have agreed to act as co-counsel with the Nevada ACLU in a religious discrimination lawsuit involving a Las Vegas police officer who was prohibited from wearing a head covering and growing a beard. Steve Riback, a captain in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and an observant Orthodox Jew, is challenging the police department’s refusal to accommodate his sincere religious beliefs by allowing him to wear a trimmed beard and cover his head with a yarmulke.

“Americans are constitutionally guaranteed the right to freely exercise their religious beliefs,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “There is no logical reason that Steve Riback’s claims for religious exemption should not be observed by the police department. This is religious discrimination, pure and simple.”

Steven Riback has been employed with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for over nine years, with most of that time working undercover on the Vice Squad. Riback’s faith prohibits him from shaving and requires him to cover his head. While Orthodox Jews typically wear a yarmulke, the traditional Jewish head covering, other caps or hats are occasionally worn instead. Thus, during his time on the Vice Squad, Riback wore a beard and baseball cap in keeping with his religious beliefs and as part of his undercover disguise. In October 2006, Detective Riback was transferred to a non-uniformed desk job in the Quality Assurance Department of the police force, where he has little to no interaction with the public. After informing his supervisor about the requirements of his faith pertaining to a beard and head covering, Riback was permitted to wear a closely cropped beard and a yarmulke. At the time, the police department had a personnel policy that prohibited all officers from wearing a beard but provided waivers for officers who must wear beards for medical reasons. Christian officers were also permitted to wear Christian service pins.

Approximately six weeks into his new assignment, Riback was ordered to remove his beard. Riback submitted a formal request for religious accommodation to the police department that would permit him to wear a trimmed beard and head covering. In his request, Detective Riback informed department leaders of a federal case, Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Newark, 170 F.3d 359 (1999), in which the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the grant of medical waivers to the exclusion of religious waivers violates the First Amendment.

However, despite the fact that the department allowed a medical exemption for shaving and, at the time, had no policy forbidding non-uniformed officers from wearing hats, Riback’s request was denied. The police department subsequently changed its policy to prohibit the wearing of hats (or yarmulkes) indoors. On August 28, 2007, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department accusing them of religious discrimination in the workplace, violating the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion and violating Riback’s right to equal protection under the law. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute agreed to join the lawsuit in January 2008.