Navy sailors sue for right to wear religiously mandated beards

by | May 25, 2021

Four servicemembers have filed suit against the U.S. Navy, asking for a religious exemption from requirements that they shave their beards in violation of their religious beliefs. The lawsuit claims that both the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) require the Navy to accommodate the sailors. Three of the sailors are Muslim, and the fourth is a Hasidic Jew.

In response to the complaint, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. ordered a temporary reprieve from a shave order against Edmund Di Liscia. reported back in April on the dilemma he faced:

Electrician’s Mate (Nuclear) 3rd Class Edmund Di Liscia, a Hasidic Jew aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, was counseled Thursday and ordered to shave his beard by Friday. Di Liscia previously obtained an accommodation allowing him to wear a beard in uniform for religious reasons, but was told by his ship’s command that the rule had been overridden. Di Liscia wrote in his counseling record that being ordered to shave violates his religious practices. He called the order to shave “extremely humiliating and deeply jarring to my psyche and soul.”

The suit points to the fact that both the Army and Air Force now provide accommodations for religious beards, and the Navy itself allows “[a]t any given time thousands of Sailors with beards for medical reasons. … Yet Defendants have recently started insisting there can be no religious-beard accommodations for Sailors on sea duty, because a beard supposedly ‘reduces safe and effective wear and operation of protective equipment,’… .”

Meanwhile, military service is not the only arena in which religious liberty and shaving regulations collide. The ACLU of Arizona and the Sikh Coalition filed a formal complaint this week with the Department of Justice, asking for an investigation into the Arizona Department of Corrections over the forced shaving of 64-year-old Surjit Singh.

In accordance with his Sikh faith, Mr. Singh sincerely believes that he must wear a turban and refrain from cutting any of his hair, including facial hair. Upon his incarceration on August 21, 2020, however, his turban was confiscated at the Yuma County Jail in Arizona. He was then transferred to ADCRR’s Alhambra Reception Center (the “Alhambra Facility”), where corrections officers handcuffed, physically restrained, and—over a period of hours—forcibly shaved his beard despite his repeated objections. The forced shaving took place in accordance with the ADCRR’s policy requiring prisoners to be clean-shaven for intake photos. Prior to this egregious incident, Mr. Singh had never before cut, shaved, trimmed, or otherwise removed his hair. The incident caused him deep shame and mental trauma, including severe depression.

Shaving requirements can place religious adherents in extremely stressful, coercive, and demeaning circumstances. That’s why federal law requires both the federal government and state correctional institutions to have very strong reasons for burdening an inmate or servicemember’s religion in that way, and it requires that there must be no other less burdensome manner of achieving its goal. Both of these situations arise in unique settings that understandably bring the need for order and safety. But as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Holt v. Hobbs in 2015, institutional discretion in maintaining those standards is not unlimited when religious exercise is hindered.

Stay tuned.