The beard that Matthias Goldstein has worn since high school - full, but trimmed short - didn't seem to be a problem during his first 15 years as a medic with the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Co.
It didn't prevent him from answering thousands of calls while staffing Saturday nights at the Baltimore County firehouse, or serving as an instructor in basic life support, advanced life support and EMT recertifcation, or being named the company's paramedic of the year in 2003.
But now his beard is at the center of a legal dispute over fire safety, religious practice and - Goldstein believes - rivalry between neighboring volunteer rescue agencies.
Earlier this year, Goldstein and two fellow Orthodox Jews were told they could not ride on emergency calls because their beards might interfere with breathing masks that the Pikesville company was considering buying for its medic corps.
The three men - Goldstein, Avi Gross, a paramedic recruit who hadn't begun to ride with the company, and Avi Green, a medical technician who was denied a job - maintain their beards in obedience to Torah injunctions against "rounding the corners of the head" and "marring the corners of the beard." Shaving, they say, is not an option.
After months seeking some sort of accommodation - months in which, Goldstein says, other medics were not required to wear the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus - they have filed complaints with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company denies any wrongdoing. Goldstein, Green and Gross accuse the fire company of religious discrimination and retaliation for their involvement with an upstart volunteer rescue organization organized by Orthodox Jews in Northwest Baltimore.
That organization, Hatzalah - Hebrew for "rescue" - was founded in 2007 to bridge the gap between an emergency and the arrival of the Baltimore Fire Department. With 20 emergency medical technicians and five paramedics, the group operates its own dispatch system, using a telephone number publicized within Northwest Baltimore.
Goldstein, medical adviser to the organization, says its members have met resentment and resistance from members of the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Co. when responding to calls near or over the county line.
He speaks of conflicts at accident scenes, arguments over patient care, one case in which a Pikesville member directed a police officer to ticket a Hatzalah member's car while that member was responding to a medical emergency.
"My personal feeling is that Pikesville has difficulty recruiting members, difficulty staffing their units, difficulty getting out the door," said Goldstein, 41, who is chief of preventive medicine and wellness at Good Samaritan Hospital. "Because of that, it's difficult [for the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Co.] to see an organization that never misses a call, 24/7, always is there within two minutes. So that was, I guess, seen as something that was, it's not really a threat, but that's something that makes you look inadequate or feel inadequate."
Messages for Pikesville Volunteer Fire Co. President Thomas Barrett, Vice President Lee Sachs and Capt. Glenn Resnick were returned by a single spokesman. The spokesman, Rob Gould, a former line officer and life member of the company, said the company "enjoys a good working relationship with many organizations in the community, including Hatzalah," and added that "to suggest otherwise is irresponsible and not factual.
"The bottom line is this is a safety-related matter and nothing more," Gould said. "Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company strongly denies any suggestion by any individual or group that it discriminates on the basis of religion."
Gould described the membership of the company as "one of the most diverse in Baltimore County, and perhaps the state of Maryland," with a line officer corps that is 100 percent Jewish, including an Orthodox woman EMT lieutenant, and an executive board that is "overwhelmingly Jewish.
"For us ... safety is No. 1," he said. "It's not just the safety of the community that we serve. But it's the safety of our active members who put their lives on the line each and every day."
If the dispute is only about the masks, precedent appears to favor the Orthodox medics. In a 2008 case involving Muslim firefighters, a federal appeals court judge found that a rule prohibiting beards was improper and ordered the District of Columbia Fire Department to accommodate their religious practice. Courts have also looked favorably on bearded Muslim firefighters in Newark and Philadelphia.
"The law affords those with sincere religious beliefs the right to an accommodation of those beliefs if that's workable," said Debbie Jeon, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which has taken up the medics' cause. "We feel like it's very workable in these circumstances."
Goldstein doesn't believe it's about the masks. Since he joined the company in 1993, he says, medics never have been required to wear them, and as far as he knows, they still aren't. But if they were, he says, he would be ready to discuss alternatives.
"I agree that over the years, people have become more in tune to blood-borne pathogens and airborne pathogens and protecting themselves and occupational safety and health issues," said Goldstein, who holds a doctorate in health sciences.
But when he shared information about masks that could accommodate his beard with Resnick, he says, he was told not to count on the fire company's buying them.
"That's when I knew it had to be something else," he said. Subsequent discussions have gone nowhere, he says.
Gould, the fire company spokesman, declined to say whether medics use masks. "I'm not going to get into the specifics of the claim other than to reinforce the fact that any claim of discrimination based upon religion is baseless and unwarranted."
Gross says he was told during the hiring process that his beard wouldn't be a problem. Being told that he could not ride on calls was "a real punch in the stomach."
He had applied to the fire company, he says, to honor another Jewish imperative: tikkun olam, or healing the world.
"I wanted to reach out to the broader community and help as many people as possible, Jew or non-Jew, it really doesn't matter to me," said Gross, 36. "And I thought this was a great way to do it. This is really where my passion is, my skill is. And it just didn't make any sense to me."
Green, who worked as a medical technician in Montreal, also wanted to contribute. He was told the beard would be a problem.
"Whoever wants to help out should be able to help out without any kind of nonsense," the 25-year-old said. "I understand if someone says to me, 'I'm not going to let you do something hazardous.' ... But if someone is throwing in politics, it just ticks me off."
The complaint to the EEOC is required before a lawsuit may be filed. Both sides say they would consider a settlement, but there have been no recent talks.
"All parties were engaged in trying to resolve the matter before the claims were filed," Gould said. "And we absolutely remain committed to that process."
Goldstein is hopeful of getting back to work.
"If it's even possible at this point, I'd like to go back to return to serving the community as I have, because they're ultimately the losers in this," he said. "But furthermore, to make sure this never happens to anyone else."