Jewish, Muslim Sailors Sue to Wear Beards in the Navy

In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Stout handle mooring lines during the ship’s return to home port at Naval Station Norfolk, in Norfolk, Va., in this Oct. 12, 2020, photo. (Spc. Jason Pastrick/U.S. Navy via AP)

A Jewish and three Muslim sailors have sued the U.S. Navy, arguing its beard policy violates their religious freedom, Religion News Service reported.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Edmund Di Liscia, a Jewish soldier aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, had previously received a religious exemption to avoid shaving in 2018, and received a temporary restraining order in April. He and three Muslim sailors are seeking religious accommodation to wear beards while serving, rather than relying on temporary allowances.

Di Liscia has said other sailors threatened to hold him down and forcibly shave his beard.

“My desire is to continue serving my country,” Di Liscia wrote, according to Algemeiner. “I don’t want to be in a position where I have to choose unnecessarily between serving my country and remaining true to my religious convictions. I also want to make it possible for other Orthodox Jews to enlist in our military and serve their country without having to abandon their religious commitments.”

Their lawsuit is brought by the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, arguing the Navy is violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Since 2014, the Pentagon has allowed military personnel to request religious accommodation to uniforms under the Religion Freedom Restoration Act. The Army and Air Force have previously allowed Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh service members to grow beards according to their religious beliefs.

The Navy has offered religious exemptions, but they were short-term and vulnerable to being revoked. The Navy broadly does not allow beards due to concerns about the facial hair interfering with sealing a gas mask. Earlier this year, First Lieutenant Sukhbir Singh Toor was the first Sikh member of the Navy’s Marine Corps to receive religious accommodations regarding his beard and turban unless he is deployed to a combat zone, according to Religion News Service.

Muslim sailors involved in the lawsuit said they were unable to get religious exemptions, but other sailors got medical exemptions. Petty Officer 2nd Class Mohammed Shoyeb’s lawyer said he was denied a religious exemption but three other sailors received medical exemptions.

Service members can receive medical exemptions in order to avoid razor burn, a condition that causes painful inflammation and scaring and can be averted by not shaving and instead letting a beard grow. However, those who receive medical exemptions have to shave occasionally to prove they still have the condition.

“The past few years have seen considerable progress in efforts to ensure members of minorities and vulnerable or historically excluded groups are welcome in public service,” said Ahmad Maaty, the Chair of Muslim Americans in Public Service. “Religious minorities need not be placed in a position of choosing between their faith and public service.”


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