Muslim corrections officer forced out over beard, suit claims

Published: 7/16/2008 12:08 AM

A former corrections officer has filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the Kane County Sheriff's Department, claiming he was forced to resign after refusing to shave his traditional Muslim beard.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court, seeks unspecified damages and a letter of apology to Abal Zaidi, who says he was forced out of the department because of his faith.

"I always had a beard as long as I can remember," Zaidi, 31, said in a brief telephone interview Tuesday. "They were just giving me a hard time."

According to the lawsuit, Zaidi, of Streamwood, was a Kane County corrections officer from July to December 2006. On Dec. 15 of that year, Sheriff Pat Perez posted an employee bulletin that "mandated all officers to cleanly shave their faces," the lawsuit claims.

When Zaidi sought exception because of his faith, a superior told him to produce documentation confirming he wore a beard for religious purposes, the lawsuit says. Two days later, he was asked to resign or face being fired for poor performance, even though the "most recent reports before (Zaidi's) termination were flawless," according to the lawsuit.

In addition, the department "created a hostile work environment by subjecting (Zaidi) to a higher level of difficulty and more rigorous guidelines during training than other non-Muslim, non-Middle-Eastern trainees," the lawsuit says. Also, "No other non-Muslim, non-Middle-Eastern employees who performed as well or worse than (Zaidi) were asked ... to resign."

Records show Zaidi first reported the allegations to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in February 2007.

The subsequent lawsuit demands a jury trial and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees and an apology from the sheriff's office. Perez declined to comment because the suit is pending.

Zaidi is represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, which declined to comment on the case Tuesday. Zaidi also declined to answer many questions, calling the lawsuit a "sensitive issue."