An Orthodox Jewish sailor and three Muslim colleagues have challenged U.S. Navy policy that allows sailors to wear beards for medical reasons but not for religious ones.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this year against the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense and several officials, the plaintiffs allege that the Navy’s policy of not making faith-based accommodations for beards amounts to a breach of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The 1993 law prohibits the government from “substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion” unless there is a “compelling governmental interest” at stake, and the application of the burden is “the least restrictive means” of furthering the government’s interest.
In their lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., April 15, plaintiffs Edmund Di Liscia, Leandros Katsareas, Dominque Braggs and Mohammed Shoyeb sought to stop the U.S. Navy from forcing them to shave and thereby violating their religious beliefs.
Arguing that there is no compelling reason for them to shave, the plaintiffs rejected the Navy’s assertion that beards tend to interfere with their performance as sailors, particularly when they are required to wear sealed masks.
The lawsuit was filed just hours before Petty Officer 3rd Class Di Liscia was confronted with a deadline set by his superiors to shave his beard or face disciplinary action.
As an observant Hassidic Jew, Di Liscia, who serves aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, described his order to shave as “extremely humiliating and deeply jarring to my psyche and soul.”
Di Liscia was counseled April 15 and instructed to shave his beard by the following day. He had previously received permission to wear a beard in uniform, but was told by his ship’s command that the religious accommodation had been reversed.
His Muslim service mates and fellow plaintiffs have a variety of problems maintaining their beards and faith-based obligations.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Katsareas was given a religious accommodation for a four-inch beard in July 2020 but was subsequently informed that the exemption was on the verge of being rescinded.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Shoyeb’s request for religious accommodation was denied outright, prompting him to seek a preliminary injunction in Augustthe in United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Braggs grew a beard for medical reasons because he has pseudofolliculitis barbae, also known as “razor bumps,” a condition that affects up to 60 percent of African American men and others who have curly hair. (The problem is caused by highly curved hairs that grow back into the skin, resulting in inflammation and prompting a foreign-body reaction.) But because he was still required to shave at regular intervals, Braggs requested a religious accommodation. It was likely to be denied or granted only in the event that he is confined to shore duty, according to the lawsuit.
“The Navy now is actually pressuring our client and others to undergo laser hair removal or other more extreme measures to kill their beards, which is a double affront to their religion,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Baxter, who represents the four plaintiffs, was also Shoyeb’s counsel in his request for a preliminary injunction. “The Navy currently allows thousands of sailors to serve with beards worn for medical reasons alone,” Baxter said in his opening arguments to the District Court. “Accordingly, the Navy can—and must—accommodate OS2 Shoyeb’s beard worn for religious reasons.”
The Navy’s own grooming policies make it all the more reasonable for Shoyeb and colleagues to demand their religious right to keep their beards. The rules were “enacted primarily over concerns about appearance, not safety,” argued Baxter on Shoyeb’s behalf, pointing out that not only has the Navy long allowed sailors to wear beards at sea as a morale-building gesture but that it has also explicitly allowed beards for both medical and religious reasons.
The Navy is an outlier when it comes to the issue of allowing faith-based accommodations for beards, Baxter said. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force make that very allowance.
Baxter said he wasn’t aware of any particular incident that might have prompted the Navy to issue its shave orders, and that “it was only after Plaintiffs brought this lawsuit that the Navy claimed such practices were unauthorized.”
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