A Muslim sailor has filed a federal lawsuit asserting that he was illegally denied the right to reenlist because he wears a beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.
The lawsuit, filed last month in Sacramento, seeks reenlistment rights for Jonathan Berts, 31, who served nine years on active duty but was denied reenlistment in 2012 after his request to wear a beard was rejected.
Berts, an African American and native of San Francisco, served on the dock landing ship Fort McHenry and then with a beachmaster unit in Coronado before being assigned as a military history and physical education instructor at the Navy training site at Great Lakes, Ill.
At Great Lakes, he was allegedly 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,” according to the lawsuit.
Among other things, a senior noncommissioned officer repeatedly used slurs involving race and religion when addressing Berts, the lawsuit contends.
Backed by Navy chaplains, Berts was seeking permission to wear a beard, which was permitted under Navy rules. The rules give commanders discretion to grant such permission. Berts’ request and appeal were denied, according to the lawsuit.
After his “religious accommodation” appeal was denied, he was “removed from his teaching duties…and stationed in an abandoned roach-infested building” guarding obsolete office equipment, the lawsuit contends. He became depressed and had difficulty sleeping, the lawsuit adds.
Berts left active duty in 2012 and transferred as an inactive reserve member of a unit at Port Hueneme in Ventura County. He lives in the Sacramento area.
A Navy spokesman declined to discuss Berts’ lawsuit but told the Navy Times that each request for religious exemption from grooming standards “requires seasoned leaders at all levels to use their best professional judgment as they look at all of the factors in each particular case.”
The lawsuit was filed by Brice Hamack of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Alan Reinach and Jonathon Cherne representing the Church State Council. The council takes up in cases it sees as infringements on religious freedom.
“We hope that Mr. Berts' courage in coming forward will encourage others to stand up against religious discrimination in the military,” said Reinach, an attorney, Seventh-Day Adventist minister and executive director of the Church State Council.
In 2014, the Navy further relaxed its restrictions on beards and head coverings for service members based on religious beliefs.
“For persons like Mr. Berts, these updates have come too late and corrective action must be taken to remedy the harm caused,” Hamack said.
During his active duty, Berts had received positive job reviews and was recommended for promotion to petty officer first class, the lawsuit contends. He converted to Islam during his Navy service.
Earlier in his career he had been allowed to wear a beard after receiving a medical waiver because of problems with ingrown hair on his face. After several years he determined that was no longer necessary but, as his religious faith deepened, he asked to resume wearing the beard, according to the lawsuit.