Navy discriminated against Muslim, denied promotion over beard, lawsuit says
By BOB EGELKO | San Francisco Chronicle (TNS) | Published: December 27, 2014
(Tribune Content Agency) — A Muslim civil rights group has sued the government on behalf of a former Navy enlisted man from Northern California who says he was the target of ethnic slurs, was reassigned to a menial job and was later denied re-enlistment after seeking permission to wear a beard for religious reasons.
Jonathan Berts of Fairfield applied to wear a beard in January 2011, but Defense Department policy did not allow religious exemptions from grooming requirements. The Pentagon relaxed its policy in January, allowing accommodations for a person’s religious beliefs, but it came too late to help Berts, said his lawyers at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
After his request for a religious accommodation was turned down, Berts, an African American Muslim who had enlisted in 2002, was denied a previously recommended promotion and was subjected to “a barrage of derogatory terms, anti-Islamic slurs, and inappropriate lines of questions about his religious beliefs and loyalty to the United States,” said the lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
The supervisor who had rejected Berts’ promotion to first class petty officer called him names like “camel jockey” and “towel head,” his lawyers said. They said Berts, a barracks instructor who taught military history and physical education to recruits at the Great Lakes naval base in Illinois, was soon transferred to an “abandoned, roach-infested building” where he spent his days in isolation guarding piles of old office equipment.
Berts, who had wanted to stay in the Navy, agreed to an honorable discharge in December 2011 and has applied unsuccessfully for re-enlistment several times since, the suit said. He manages low-income apartment buildings in Fairfield but still serves in the Navy Reserve with high evaluations, said attorney Brice Hamack, the Muslim group’s Northern California civil rights coordinator.
Hamack said Berts was allowed to wear a beard during his first four years in the Navy for medical reasons, because of a skin condition, and was turned down only when he later asked to wear one because of his Islamic faith.
“We appreciate that the Department of Defense has made strides in updating its stance on religious accommodations,” Hamack said, but it also needs to “remedy the harm caused” to people like Berts under the previous policy. The suit seeks court orders returning Berts to active duty and restoring the losses he suffered to his pension and other benefits because of his discharge.
A similar dispute has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in October in the case of a Muslim who was denied permission to grow a half-inch beard in a prison in Arkansas, one of 10 states that do not let inmates wear beards.
Navy officials were unavailable for comment on Berts’ suit.
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