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Muslim sailor aboard USS George Washington gets Navy waiver to grow 4-inch beard

Petty Officer 3rd Class Leo Katsareas, stationed on the Norfolk-based USS George Washington, was recently granted a special grooming waiver by the Navy allowing him to grow a 4-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.

LEO KATSAREAS/TNS

By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: July 31, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — For most of his four-year Navy career, Petty Officer 3rd Class Leo Katsareas has only been allowed to grow a quarter-inch beard.

But he believes his Islamic faith dictates he should maintain one that’s fist length.

Now Katsareas, who is currently assigned to the Norfolk-based USS George Washington, can do so while still serving. He was recently granted a special grooming accommodation that allows him to grow facial hair up to 4 inches — for now.

The accommodation is subject to change if his duty station does.

“For too long, sailors like me have had to choose between serving our country and expressing our deeply held religious beliefs,” Katsareas told Military.com, which first reported the waiver. “Recognizing and appreciating our nation’s diversity of religious views, reflected in its sailors, will lead to a stronger and better Navy. That’s a win for everyone.”

Eric Baxter, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who helped Katsareas obtain the waiver on appeal, told The Virginian-Pilot it’s important for the U.S. military to allow men and women in uniform the same rights as any other citizen unless it directly poses a threat.

“There’s a common misconception that people who are religious are just making choices about what to do,” he said. “The truth is, when someone has a religious conviction, they feel compelled to comply with religious obligations. They feel a deep injury if they are unable to do the things they believe God is calling them to do. ... It feels demeaning there’s not an acknowledgement of religious differences and a greater willingness to accommodate those.”

Katsareas, a mass communication specialist, was unavailable for an interview this week. According to the Becket Fund’s website, he is an Australia native and converted to Islam as a teenager. He “fell in love with America’s history, its principles, and particularly its commitment to freedom,” the website states, and came to the United States eight years ago.

Baxter said his client has struggled to get appropriate waivers since joining the Navy in 2016, often having to start all over again when he was transferred.

His most recent special accommodation request was initially denied this spring. That’s when he reached out to the Becket Fund, which has helped those in other military branches with similar requests. The Air Force started granting accommodations last year, and the Army made it easier to get them a couple years before that.

“The Navy has been the most restrictive,” Baxter said.

The Navy’s views on facial hair have gone back and forth for centuries. Most recently the service banned beards in 1984, citing concern over sailors being able to properly seal emergency breathing apparatuses. Then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said at the time, however, it was due simply to aesthetics, according to the U.S. Naval Institute.

In March, the Navy updated its policies to allow fleet commanders to approve most religious accommodation requests. Also, only the deputy chief of naval operations has the authority to deny such requests, “and he does so only when necessary ... to fulfill a compelling government interest,” Cmdr. Dave Hecht, a spokesman for the Chief of Naval Personnel, said in an email.

“All Sailors are welcome to request a waiver in order to observe religious practices,” he wrote. “We value the diversity in our force to include our Sailors’ religious preferences.”

Hecht said the Navy could not discuss Katsareas’ case due to privacy concerns. But under recent Department of Defense guidance, he said the service is further reviewing its standards and policies “to ensure that we promote the morale, cohesion, and readiness of the force to improve diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity for our Service members.”

Grooming standards, including facial hair policies, are part of that, he said.

All approved religious accommodations, Hecht said, last for the service member’s career but are up for review or revocation when there’s a change in circumstances such as change in duty or work environment.

Baxter said his client wishes the waiver was career-long without such restrictions, but currently has no way to formally request that. Litigation could be on the table if the accommodations were revoked in the future, he said.

The sailor has said he’d be willing to shave the hair in life-threatening circumstances, but doesn’t think he should have to otherwise.

“The ongoing threat of being required to immediately shave places pressure on my religious beliefs,” Katsareas told Military.com.

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