(RNS) — Shave or be Shaved. Aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, sailor Edmund Di Liscia faced a stark choice. According to his lawyers, he was told to either shave his beard voluntarily or be held down by his bunk mate and forcibly shaved. For Di Liscia, a practicing Hasidic Jew who had not shaved for more than two years, it was a choice between his loyalty to the U.S. Navy and his religious faith.
Di Liscia is one of several sailors and marines who are seeking religious accommodation to wear beards while in uniform.
Earlier this year, Di Liscia, along with three Muslim sailors, joined in a lawsuit brought by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, alleging the Navy’s beard policy amounts to a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Pentagon has allowed military personnel to request religious accommodation to uniforms under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act since 2014. The Army and Air Force have allowed beards as a religious accommodation for Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Norse heathen service members who have requested them.
Di Liscia had been granted a “no-shave” chit in 2018 as a morale measure. While the Navy has granted religious exemptions in the past, they have not always held. Leandros Katsareas, a Petty Officer 3rd Class, was granted an exemption last year to wear a four-inch beard but was informed this year the exemption could be revoked. Dominque Braggs, another Muslim sailor of the same rank, was given a health exemption due to pseudofolliculitis barbae, also known as razor burn. Braggs must still shave regularly and is asking for a religious exemption. Petty Officer 2nd Class Mohammed Shoyeb previously requested and was denied a religious exemption, a situation his lawyer describes as particularly frustrating given that three sailors on his vessel had been granted medical exemptions from shaving due to razor burn.
Beards were common in the U.S. military until World War I when concerns about the seal of period gas masks were an issue. Some 100,000 soldiers died due to chemical gas during that conflict. The Navy allowed beards beginning in 1970, only to reverse the policy in the mid-1980s — a directive that was soon followed by the Coast Guard. Militaries around the world have varying policies regarding beards. Notably the navies of the United Kingdom and Australia allow sailors to wear beards.
“Today the Navy uses positive-pressure gas masks. This is important because, in an emergency, if you grab a gas mask, there is no guarantee it is going to fit. So in real-life situations, there is going to be less than a perfect seal,” said Eric Baxter, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The United States Navy removed a permanent exemption in 2019 from shaving for those who suffer from razor burn. Those who claim a medical exemption for razor bumps must now shave periodically to prove they still suffer from the condition, which can in some instances lead to permanent scars. The policy had a disproportionate impact on African American service members. Studies have shown that as much as 60% of African American men suffer from pseudofolliculitis barbae.
An unlikely boost for the change in the Navy’s policy came from the Marine Corps. Earlier this year First Lieutenant Sukhbir Singh Toor, a practicing Sikh, received approval for limited religious accommodation from the Marine Corps for his faith. He is believed to be the first turbaned Sikh to receive such an accommodation, though his lawyers have criticized the strict standards put in place by the Marine Corps.
“He is forced to remove his turban and beard whenever assigned to a ceremonial unit, and to shave his beard when deployed and receiving Hostile Fire Pay or Imminent Danger Pay. Accordingly, we are now considering our final options before litigation,” said Graham West, the communications director of the Sikh Coalition.
The Becket Fund says a decision is not likely until next year for the four sailors seeking religious accommodation. In the interim, the Becket Fund says the Navy has agreed to allow all four men religious accommodation to wear beards while the case is pending.
“That decision would seem to undercut the Navy’s argument that allowing these sailors to wear beards poses some sort of risk,” said Baxter.
Were the Navy and Marines to allow beards for active service personnel when in uniforms, it could have a wider impact on the issue. Other facets of the federal government and first-responder organizations could be impacted.
“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. Furthermore, the arbitrary and capricious forms of creating conformance, even to how one manages their hair, is outdated and doesn’t focus on what really matters in public service: performance,” he said.