Judge Grants Jewish Sailor Temporary Reprieve After Navy Orders Him to Shave Beard

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt "Don’t Give Up the Ship"
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) flies a replica of Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry’s “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag June 3, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Naval Air Crewman (Helicopter) 1st Class Will Bennett)

A federal judge on Thursday temporarily postponed orders a deployed sailor was facing to shave his beard -- an order he says infringes on his religious rights.

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."

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A request for a temporary restraining order was then filed Thursday on Di Liscia's behalf in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The temporary restraining order would prevent the Defense Department from being able to force the sailor to shave his beard.

As a devout Hasidic Jew even before he joined the Navy, Di Liscia "sincerely believes that he must maintain a beard to comply with his religious obligations," the documents state. However, failing to shave, or refusing to allow himself to be shaved, would put him in violation of a direct order, it adds, which could lead to "substantial punishment" from the Navy.

"Within this form of Orthodox Judaism, it is a religious requirement and an expression of obedience and fidelity to God for men not to cut the side and edges of their hair," the court documents state. "... The growth of facial hair also promotes physical and spiritual modesty and is a sign of spiritual maturity in his faith community."

Eric Baxter, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, wrote that the Navy was requiring Di Liscia to shave only as a matter of procedure. That goes against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the U.S. Constitution, he said.

In a brief hearing Thursday, a federal judge ordered a temporary stay in the case. With the ship operating halfway around the world, District Judge Timothy Kelly said he wanted to give himself and the Defense Department's team more time to learn about the sailor's circumstances.

Joseph Carilli Jr., who was representing the Defense Department, said Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell sent an order to Di Liscia's chain of command to freeze any moves that would require the sailor to shave his beard. Since the ship is operating in the Pacific, Carilli said it was difficult to immediately confirm whether Nowell's order had been received by the carrier's commanding officer.

It's not clear whether Nowell gave a timeframe for how long Di Liscia will be allowed to keep his beard as his case is reviewed. Officials in Nowell's office and on the carrier Roosevelt did not immediately respond to questions about Di Liscia's case.

Kelly gave Carilli until Friday to prove the shave order had been paused, saying that he would issue the temporary restraining order if he does not get word that the Navy has halted the requirement.

Baxter argued that the temporary restraining order is needed to protect Di Liscia from the potentially harmful act of shaving his beard since the layers of bureaucracy and distance could create confusion about his client's case.

The Navy often cites safety as a reason to require sailors to shave when at sea in case they're forced to don protective equipment to fight a fire or other emergency. Baxter argued that other crew members on the Theodore Roosevelt have morale, welfare and recreation waivers that allow them to grow beards.

"If the Navy can safely fight fires while sailors hold morale and medical beard exemptions, why can it not accomplish this goal with EMN3 Di Liscia, especially given that his beard has posed no problem to date and he is willing to shave it in truly exigent circumstances?" he wrote in the court documents filed Thursday.

Baxter also said the Navy has the option of reassigning Di Liscia if his beard poses a safety risk. Ultimately, Di Liscia's attorney added, the sailor's leaders are out of compliance with Navy regulations since they didn't give him a chance to appeal the change in his religious accommodation up his chain of command before ordering that he shave his beard.

Baxter previously represented another sailor who obtained a special grooming accommodation to grow his facial hair up to 4 inches long. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Leo Katsareas, who converted to Islam at age 16, believes his faith requires him to wear a fist-length beard.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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