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Religious Conflict : Firefighter Shifts Jobs for Sake of Belief

October 02, 1986|LARRY GORDON | Times Staff Writer

An Orthodox Jewish Glendale firefighter involved in a dispute with the city over the wearing of his skullcap on duty and the taking off of Saturdays to observe Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, has at least temporarily accepted a transfer to an inspector's position that will allow him to work Mondays through Fridays.

The move, expected later this month, also will permit Michael Pomeranz to wear his yarmulke with no headgear over it because fire-prevention inspectors do not have to wear uniforms. As a firefighter, Pomeranz has been required to wear a uniform cap over the yarmulke except when superiors allow firefighters to change from uniforms into informal clothes.

Despite the transfer, the controversy surrounding Pomeranz may not be over.

Carol Sobel, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who has been helping Pomeranz, said the firefighter does not view the transfer as permanent, even though the city does. She said he had little choice but to accept the position in light of what she said was an unpleasant working situation created by the department. She said he considers the transfer to be "a punitive measure against the exercise of First Amendment rights."

Wants to Stay Firefighter

She said Pomeranz wants to remain a firefighter, and that he had sought permission to wear his yarmulke uncovered and to trade work days with other firefighters so he could take all Saturdays off. However, ending a formal grievance process begun in July, the city manager this week denied Pomeranz's request to always trade his Saturday shift and to not cover his skullcap when in uniform as a firefighter.

That grievance cannot be appealed to the City Council. Asked if the ACLU might sue the city on behalf of Pomeranz, Sobel said: "We need to see how it goes in Fire Prevention and need to think a little bit about what happens next."

Reached at his home in Santa Barbara, Pomeranz declined to comment. He was a police officer in Glendale before transferring to the Fire Department four years ago. His religious beliefs became stronger during recent visits to Israel and to the sites of concentration camps in Poland where his father survived Nazi brutalities, according to Betsy Rosenthal, an attorney with the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith who is also advising him.

Denies Punishment

Dennis Schuck, Glendale's senior assistant city attorney, denied that the fire inspector's job was any kind of punishment. Schuck said the post had to be filled and was offered in an attempt to balance Pomeranz's religious convictions with the city's need for assured manpower to fight fires.

Under state and federal law, the city is required to make accommodations for an employee's religious beliefs but not if those accommodations significantly affect the quality of city services, Schuck said.

"The issue here is the extent of accommodation," Schuck said. "I don't think the city has ever taken the stand that his convictions are not real or not to be addressed." Schuck said the city considers the transfer permanent but that Pomeranz could apply for any firefighting opening. "It won't be guaranteed, but the city would give it serious consideration," he said.

Schuck said the city will allow Pomeranz to begin and end work an hour earlier than usual on Fridays so he can leave work before sundown, when the Jewish Shabbat begins. Orthodox tradition forbids driving on the Shabbat.

Added Problems in Winter

However, Sobel said that even those early Friday hours, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., may cause Pomeranz problems in the winter when sunsets come close to 5 p.m. Pomeranz would like to leave earlier than 4:30 so he can drive to his Santa Barbara home before sundown, she said. She said she plans to raise that issue again in a few weeks when, she said, "we hope the city will bend a little more."

Allowing Pomeranz to leave work earlier than 4:30 p.m. on Fridays might be impossible, Schuck said, explaining that "the city feels at some point you have to require some regimen." But he stressed that the city is taking a "wait-and-see attitude" about the Friday hours.

Fire Chief John Montenero declined this week to comment on the Pomeranz situation, saying that all press inquiries should be made to the city attorney's office because a formal grievance is involved.

Switching Shifts

Firefighters work rotating shifts requiring them to be on duty some Saturdays. However, they are allowed, with a supervisor's permission, to trade with colleagues as many as three days a month, plus four additional shifts a year.

Pomeranz had been getting approval for those swaps in recent months, but officials said they could not guarantee he always would. They said he would be missing too many drills and his absence might put a strain on weekend manpower.

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