GULFPORT -- He really wanted to be a firefighter, Larry Christmas Jr. said, but he gave up his dream and filed a lawsuit because the Fire Department insisted he cut off his dreadlocks.
In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Christmas accuses the city of racial discrimination. He requests $500,000 in compensation for losing the job and $2 million in damages designed to punish the city. The Pascagoula resident claims he suffered "great mental distress, depression, physical injury, humiliation and anguish" over loss of the firefighter's job.
The city has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, which represents only one side of the story.
The lawsuit says Christmas aced his written and physical tests when he applied for the position in mid-2014. Nonetheless, he said he was passed over in the first round of hires, but white candidates with lower scores landed jobs. Christmas said he began to feel discrimination was at play.
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Christmas received a call-back in December 2014, when the Fire Department hired him and he sat down for a second interview, this one with Chief Mike Beyerstedt.
Beyerstedt told Christmas he would need to cut off the dreadlocks that hung down his back before he reported for a physical and orientation in February 2015. Beyerstedt told Christmas the dreadlocks would be a safety risk, according to Christmas.
Christmas disagrees, saying his hair was not a problem during the physical agility test, when he tucked his dreadlocks under a helmet with a chin strap. The 37-year-old did not show up for the physical or orientation.
He was unwilling to cut off his dreadlocks, he said, because they are an expression of his African-American heritage and his adoption of customs from the Rastafarian religion. He said he wouldn't feel safe working at the Fire Department now because of all that has happened.
Instead, he is working as an elevator mechanic. Christmas studied up on filing a lawsuit and is handling his case without an attorney.
He said his dreadlocks are the same age as his 10-year-old son.
"The way I wear my hair is not a style," Christmas said. "It's an ethnic and religious belief."