Navy sued by sailors wanting religious exemption to have beards

·3 min read
US sailors look on as they stand aboard the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), part of Destroyer Squadron 2, while it anchors in Port Sudan on March 1, 2021.  (AFP via Getty Images)
US sailors look on as they stand aboard the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), part of Destroyer Squadron 2, while it anchors in Port Sudan on March 1, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)

Sailors in the US Navy have filed a lawsuit for a religious exemption to have beards. The lawsuit is an attempt by four men to stop the Navy from forcing them to shave in violation of their religious beliefs.

The legal filing states that three of the sailors, one Hasidic Jew and two Muslims, have either been denied the ability to even have a beard that’s neatly trimmed or have been told that previous faith-based accommodations are going to expire.

The fourth sailor, also a Muslim, has pseudofolliculitis barbae, also known as razor bumps. He’s had a beard for medical reasons but still has to shave every 30 days to prove that his face swells up each time he shaves, according to the lawsuit.

The requirements violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the filing argues. It also states that the facial hair conditions infringe on the sailors’ constitutional rights, including free speech, due process, equal protection, and the free exercise of religion.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the government from putting a substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion, except when there’s a compelling interest for the government to do so. The action to restrict religious freedom also has to be the least restrictive measure possible to be permissible under the law.

The sailors reject the notion put forward by the Navy that being bearded could harm the performance of their duties. The suit argues that “the fact that the US Army and Air Force both allow religious beards” shows that the Navy has no “compelling reason” for “suppressing” the free exercise of religion.

“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 US, further undermines defendants’ claims,” the filing adds.

It goes on to say that the Navy has a “robust tradition of bearded sailors” but that they recently started commanding that no religious accommodations be made for bearded sailors on sea duty. Moustaches are allowed. Sailors in the Navy were barred from growing beards on 1 January 1985.

The lawsuit was filed on 15 April in DC federal court and names defendants such as the Navy, the Department of Defence and multiple officials.

The Navy has agreed not to enforce shave orders against the plaintiffs for the time being.

“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 attorney Eric Baxter, who represents the sailors, according to United Press International.

“It would be huge to finally be able to serve their country without having to sacrifice their religious beliefs,” the lawyer added.

In January 2017, the Army issued new guidance allowing soldiers to wear hijabs and turbans, and to have religious beards.

“Now they have close to 100 soldiers who have religious beards, and they have had no problems in the last five years,” Mr Baxter said.

For many members of the military, having a beard is simply a personal choice.

Army Sgt Dalton Rowan, stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky, started a petition entitled “allow US Army soldiers to grow beards in a garrison environment” which now has reached more than 103,000 signatures.

It argues that military members serving in non-combat environments should be allowed to have beards. The petition has been noticed and supported by military members of all ranks from all over the world, including places like Italy and South Korea.

“It's not just the guys on the ground. It’s an Army-wide thing. People want this change,” Sgt Rowan told United Press International.

The Independent has reached out to the Navy for comment.

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