Di Liscia v. Austin
One of the Navy’s most prominent admirals once said he would not tolerate any violation of the “rights or privileges” of sailors who grow beards, but today, Navy policy requires all sailors to be clean-shaven—even if their religious beliefs require them to wear a beard. This policy puts Edmund Di Liscia, an Orthodox Jewish sailor, in a predicament: he can serve the country he loves, or he can abide by his religious convictions. For years, Di Liscia has been able to reconcile these competing obligations thanks to religious accommodations granted by his commanding officers. But the protections were temporary, so in September 2020, Di Liscia formally requested a durable religious accommodation so that he can maintain his beard in accordance with his Jewish faith. Ironically, at the time of his request, Di Liscia’s commander had issued a ship-wide order allowing all Sailors on board to skip shaving, except once every fourteen days. But still the Navy has refused to grant Di Liscia an enduring religious accommodation. Indeed, despite the ship-wide allowance for fourteen-day beards, on April 14, 2021, Di Liscia’s commanding officer ordered him to shave within 24 hours or face punishment. Now Di Liscia and three Muslim sailors, Leo Katsareas, Dominque Braggs, and Mohammed Shoyeb, are asking a federal court to step in and stop the Navy from forcing them to violate their religious beliefs.
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Beards: a naval tradition and a religious obligation
For most of the nearly 250-year-old history of the U.S. Navy, sailors were known for their beards – indeed, the Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War, Gideon Welles, sported a full, bushy beard. In the 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations, forbade discrimination or any violation of the “rights and privileges” of sailors who chose to wear beards – which helped sailors suffering from “razor bumps” (Pseudofolliculitis barbae), a painful infection aggravated by shaving.
This policy also accommodated the needs of religious minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs, and Orthodox Jews, who often wear beards in accordance with the traditions and obligations of their faith. But in 1985, the Navy did an about-face and broadly banned beards, while granting limited exemptions for religious, morale, and medical purposes. In recent years, the Navy has begun to further narrow those exemptions, rejecting religious exemption requests and pressuring sailors to give up medical exemptions, instead of allowing them to keep their beards.
An unnecessary conflict
This has made America’s Navy a much less welcoming place for sailors like Edmund Di Liscia. Di Liscia, a devout Orthodox Jew, joined the U.S. Navy in 2018 and is currently at sea, serving on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Di Liscia’s Jewish faith requires him to wear a beard as a sign of spiritual maturity, and an expression of obedience and fidelity to God. So in September 2020, he formally requested a religious exemption from the Navy’s shaving policy, but the Navy refused to accommodate his religious convictions. Fortunately, Di Liscia has been able to maintain his beard thanks to a temporary no-shave “chit”—a religious accommodation granted by a commanding officer that allowed him to keep his beard.
The chits aren’t just granted for religious reasons. For example, while at sea, Di Liscia’s commanding officer granted a ship-wide no-shave chit to boost morale. However, temporary chits aren’t sufficient to protect the religious liberty of sailors like Di Liscia. Case in point, on April 14, 2021, the Navy decided—for no apparent reason—that Di Liscia’s chit was no longer valid, and he was told that he must shave his beard within 24 hours or face punishment.
But the Navy’s unfair policy is an outlier. The Army and Air Force have both taken steps to allow religious minorities to serve with their beards intact. Other nations, like the United Kingdom and Israel, also allow their sailors to maintain beards, proving that religious minorities don’t have to be faced with the choice of serving their country or their Creator.
Under federal law, the military is prohibited from suppressing an individual’s religious exercise without a compelling government interest. On April 15, 2021, Becket asked the District Court for the District of Columbia to stop the Navy from forcing Di Liscia to shave, and sued to protect three other Muslim sailors, Leo Katsareas, Dominque Braggs, and Mohammed Shoyeb, as well. They will show once and for all that the Navy only stands to gain by letting them exercise their religious faith.
Just a few hours after Becket’s filing, the Court set an emergency hearing and issued an order temporarily protecting Di Liscia from being forced to shave. Soon after, the Navy confirmed that it would not force Di Liscia to shave in the short term, and Becket will continue pursuing a lasting accommodation so that Di Liscia, and other sailors like him, can freely live out their religious beliefs while serving their country.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Individual Freedom: The government cannot burden the sincere religious beliefs of individuals by preventing them from exercising their faith. Because all individuals have a right to sincerely follow their faith, the government cannot discriminate against them by impeding their religious conduct or forbidding their obligatory religious practices. Instead, the government should find ways to respect their religious exercise.