Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa is the first active-duty airman permitted to dress according to the Sikh religion. Four U.S. Navy sailors are seeking the right to wear beards for their religion. File Photo courtesy of ACLU
May 19 (UPI) -- Four sailors have filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the U.S. Navy from forcing them to shave in violation of their religious beliefs.
Three of the sailors, a Hasidic Jew and two Muslims, have either been denied a faith-based accommodation to have a neatly maintained beard or told that previous permission to have one is going to be rescinded, the suit says.
The other sailor, who is Muslim, suffers from pseudofolliculitis barbae, or "razor bumps," and has had a beard for medical reasons but is required to shave every 30 days to prove he still gets painful swelling on his face each time he does, according to the suit.
The suit alleges violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the constitutional rights of free speech, due process, the guarantee of equal protection and the free exercise of religion. The RFRA bars the government from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion except in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and only if an action is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
The sailors reject the Navy's contention that beards could interfere with the performance of their duties, especially when they might have to wear a sealed gas mask or similar equipment, and say there is no compelling reason to require them to shave.
"The fact that the U.S. Army and Air Force both allow religious beards further belies any supposedly compelling reason defendants may assert for suppressing plaintiffs' religious exercise," the suit says. "And the allowance for religious beards by militaries around the world, including in the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand and India, as well as by police and fire departments throughout the U.S., further undermines defendants' claims."
The suit also says the Navy has a "robust tradition of bearded sailors" but recently started insisting there can be no religious beard accommodations for sailors on sea duty. Mustaches are allowed under the rules.
The suit was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on April 15, hours before a deadline set for Petty Officer 3rd Class Edmund Di Liscia by his chief to shave off his beard or be subject to disciplinary action. Named as defendants are the Navy, the Department of Defense and several of their officials.
Di Liscia, who serves aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, had been given a "no-shave chit" in December 2018 while he was assigned to shore command that permitted him to maintain his beard as an accommodation of his Hasidic Jewish faith. The suit says that many Hasidic Jews believe the beard is so holy that they do not even trim it with scissors. Di Liscia has not shaved in more than two years.
The suit says Di Liscia's beard has not interfered with his performance in routine gas mask-seal-integrity tests, which he passed.
The no-shave chit transferred over to sea duty, and Di Liscia's commander also has issued a ship-wide no-shave chit to help boost morale, the suit says. However, the sailor is now being told the 2018 chit is no longer valid
In addition, the morale chit requires sailors to clean-shave every 14 days. So Di Liscia sought a durable religious accommodation that would provide more long-term protection, the suit says. His request was denied on safety grounds, and he filed an appeal to the chief of naval operations, which is pending.
The other three plaintiffs are devout adherents of Islam, obliged by their faith to maintain a substantial beard, the suit says.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Leandros Katsareas has had a religious accommodation for a quarter-inch beard since October 2018, and an accommodation for a four-inch beard since July 2020, which he has been told is about to be rescinded.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Mohammed Shoyeb has sought a religious accommodation to grow a beard, but was denied.
And Petty Officer 3rd Class Dominque Braggs has a beard for medical reasons since completing boot camp because he has pseudofolliculitis barbae but still has to shave regularly. He has asked for an official religious accommodation, but that request is likely to be denied or granted only to the extent he remains on shore duty, the suit says.
The Navy has agreed not to enforce shave orders against the four sailors for now.
Attorney Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represents the sailors, said razor bumps overwhelmingly impact African American men.
"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," he said.
Baxter said he is not aware of any specific incident that led to the recent shave orders by the Navy, which he describes as an outlier because the Army and Air Force allow religious accommodations for beards.
A favorable ruling for the plaintiffs probably would lead to only a small number of sailors getting a religious accommodation for a beard, but for them, "it would be huge to finally be able to serve their country without having to sacrifice their religious beliefs," Baxter said.
The Becket Fund previously helped represent Capt. Simratpal "Simmer" Singh, a Sikh soldier who sued the U.S. Army to get a permanent religious accommodation to have unshorn hair and a beard and wear a turban, and also three other members of the faith in a separate lawsuit. In January 2017, the Army issued new regulations allowing Sikhs to wear the articles of their faith.
"Now they have close to 100 soldiers who have religious beards, and they have had no problems in the last five years," Baxter said.
The Army Times reported in April 2018 that under those regulations, a soldier at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., had been granted permission to wear a beard in accordance with his Norse pagan faith.
Also in 2018, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan became the first Muslim airman granted a shaving waiver based on his faith. The religious accommodation was allowed under new guidance released by the Air Force in 2016.
Grooming rule changes
Recent changes in military hair and grooming rules have involved more than religious accommodations.
Since Feb. 10, the Air Force has allowed female airmen to wear their hair in one or two braids or a single ponytail beginning Feb. 10. In addition, women can wear longer bangs that touch their eyebrows but do not cover their eyes.
A uniform board had discussed changes in dress and appearance based on feedback from airmen of various ranks, including thousands of women, according to an Air Force news release. The styles permitted under the previous grooming standards, including tight buns, sometimes caused migraines and hair damage or loss.
"In addition to the health concerns we have for our airmen, not all women have the same hair type, and our hair standards should reflect our diverse force," Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass said in a news release.
Members must adhere to procedures that mitigate the potential for injury involving hair of varying lengths around machinery, equipment, power transmission apparatus or moving parts, the release says.
For now, U.S. Space Force guardians will follow the Air Force's grooming standards for women until their branch develops its own policy.
The uniform board reviewed numerous other suggestions, including changing the beard policy, which allows shaving waivers only for medical reasons or as a religious accommodation. The Air Force decided against changes, saying they weren't needed because there are no health or hair loss issues associated with the grooming standards for men.
For many military members, having a beard is a personal preference. U.S. Army Sgt. Dalton G. Rowan, who is stationed in Fort Knox, Ky., started a petition on change.org calling for a change in grooming standards that would allow soldiers in a non-combat environment to grow a beard.
Rowan said the petition -- which is titled "Allow U.S. Army soldiers to grow beards in a garrison environment" and has more than 103,000 signatures -- has gotten attention from military members of all ranks and from all over the world, including Italy and South Korea.
"It's not just the guys on the ground," Rowan told UPI. "It's an Army-wide thing. People want this change."