Dispute resolved between Orthodox officer, college

Back at work, but not on day of rest

November 21, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Ever since his son Sam was born five years ago, David Brown has observed the Sabbath with his family, singing, praying and enjoying a large meal in their Pikesville home. For Orthodox Jews like the Brown family, the time between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday is a holiday during which work, even flicking a light switch, should be avoided.

"One of my biggest fears, one of the things I never wanted to happen, was for my family to sit down for Shabbos dinner and to have my chair be empty," he said.

But while Brown was celebrating the Sabbath, he was also missing shifts with the Towson University police department. In a dispute that inspired protests and petitions from students, Brown accused the school of religious discrimination, while the school suspended him from his job.

Yesterday, a day before a hearing that Brown feared would have led to his termination, he reached an agreement with the university. Although supervisors will still assign Brown to work during the Sabbath, they will give him more freedom to find other officers to cover his shifts, and even allow him to skip some.

"I feel pretty excited about going back to the job, said Brown, 34, who anticipates returning to work early next week. "It's like a weight has been lifted off."

Brown has worked in security at the university since 1992, first as a police aide, then as a dispatcher and then, after completing the police academy in 1996, as an officer. At the time he joined the department he was not Jewish, but, he said, a lapsed Christian on a spiritual quest.

"Throughout my life, especially throughout my adult life ... I was always looking for something," he says. "I was always interested in Judaism, but it wasn't until I met my wife that I got involved in it."

Brown and his wife, Jennifer, a part-time day care provider who was raised Orthodox, were married seven years ago. He adopted Orthodox practices about two years later. That's when problems started at work.

Officers could not have specific days of the week off, department officials said, when Brown asked to take off on the Sabbath. They contended that accommodating Brown's schedule would have stretched the police force, which has about 40 officers, too thin. They also said it would have forced the department to pay overtime for officers to cover his shifts.

That prompted Brown to file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2004. It was rejected because a government investigator determined that it would cost the university too much money to adjust the schedule.

Then, earlier this year, the department changed Brown's midnight shift to a shift earlier in the evening. Since the Sabbath includes portions of Friday evening and Saturday evening, twice as many shifts were a problem for him.

The department also changed the rules for switching shifts. Only a handful of officers could cover for him under the guidelines.

Unable to find officers that could cover for him, Brown missed five shifts over a six-month period and faced escalating disciplinary action.

Students, who saw Brown as a victim of religious discrimination, were outraged. Having an Orthodox police officer made the campus more diverse, they said.

"It's a source of pride for the Jewish community, and they're taking that away from us," Towson sophomore Shlomo Goldman said.

Along with other members of Hillel, an organization of Jewish students, Goldman organized a rally to support Brown.

Members of the Baltimore Jewish Council stepped in to show support for Brown.

"If they're seeking to attract diverse students and faculty, which I know they are, this is sending the wrong message to a substantial portion of the community," council President Arthur C. Abramson said last week.

As part of the agreement reached yesterday, Brown will withdraw a second complaint he filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The university will move him back to the midnight shift and will allow him to find a replacement from a larger pool of officers.

"It's not as if we are admitting what we did in the past was wrong," said Michael Anselmi, a lawyer who represents Towson University. "We are just attempting in everyone's best interests to try to resolve a personnel dispute without litigation."

Brown said that while suspended, he sometimes realized how much he wanted to return to his job when he saw other police officers at work.

"Believe me," he said, "I'll be walking to services on a Saturday and see a Baltimore County officer out on a traffic stop, and I'll miss that."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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