The Department of the Navy has completed its long-awaited study on whether beards interfere with gas mask seals, federal court filings reveal.

But exactly what that will mean for sailors and Marines going forward remains unclear.

While the study’s findings have not been disclosed, court filings make clear that the department is now mulling changes to unspecified aspects of its policies governing when sailors and Marines with religious or medical accommodations may wear beards.

Department officials haven’t provided an update on the beard study ― which Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro initiated in November 2021 ― for months. As recently as December 2023, Del Toro’s office did not respond to emails from Navy Times seeking an update on the study’s status.

But filings in a lawsuit about beard accommodations for Marines of the Sikh faith show the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego completed the study and sent it to Del Toro by June 2023.

Now, the department is examining whether changes to its beard policies would be “operationally supportable and prudent,” according to the court filing.

Both the Navy and the Marine Corps generally don’t allow facial hair other than mustaches, but they allow beards for religious reasons or for service members with medical conditions like razor bumps.

The lawsuit in which the information about the beard study recently popped up was filed in April 2022 by Sikh men who wish to keep their articles of faith, including beards, while serving in various locations where the Marine Corps had banned beards even for religious reasons.

In the first phase of the litigation, now-Lance Cpl. Jaskirat Singh successfully sought the right to go through boot camp with an unshorn beard and a turban.

Now, the lance corporal and Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor are seeking to lift the Marine Corps’ restrictions on deploying to combat zones — where Marines may have to use gas masks — while keeping their beards, according to the January filing. The Corps initially told Toor he couldn’t wear a beard while in ceremonial roles but dropped that restriction in January 2022, according to the plaintiff’s April 2022 complaint.

Navy leaders have in the past expressed concerns about beards hampering service members’ ability to get proper seals on gas masks.

But Singh said in August 2023 that he kept his gas mask sealed in the tear gas chamber at boot camp without difficulty. Several sailors with beards previously told Navy Times they haven’t had any issues with gas masks, either.

Some Black sailors have voiced frustration about being alienated for needing no-shave exemptions for their razor bumps, a skin condition that predominantly affects Black men.

Del Toro directed the now-completed study examining the impact of facial hair on the functioning of gas masks as part of a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.

Representatives for the defendants in the lawsuit — the Defense Department, the Department of the Navy and their senior leaders — sent a copy of the report on the beard study to the plaintiffs in November 2023, according to the January filing.

The Sikh Coalition, which represents the plaintiffs, said it couldn’t release the report to Marine Corps Times, citing a protective order governing sensitive or classified documents.

Terrence Clark, a spokesman for the Justice Department, which represents the military, confirmed that both parties had requested a protective order for some of the documents in the case but said he couldn’t share anything further.

A Navy spokesman on Monday declined to provide comment or updates about beard policies in the Department of the Navy, citing ongoing litigation.

The court filing doesn’t spell out the contents of the report. But it indicates the Department of the Navy, which encompasses both the Navy and the Marine Corps, is weighing changes to its beard policies now that the report is complete.

In December 2023, after reviewing the report and getting input from the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, Del Toro issued a memorandum directing a look into the report’s implications.

Del Toro told the assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs to work with the Navy and Marine Corps on “an immediate assessment of the report’s impact as applied to religious accommodation and medical waiver policies both at sea and ashore,” according to the court filing.

This assessment will include “whether bringing parity to the Department’s policies for accommodating beards is operationally supportable and prudent,” the filing said.

The filing didn’t specify what aspects of the two naval services’ policies might be brought in alignment with each other.

The Navy doesn’t allow religious accommodations for beards aboard ships but allows them with some limitations on shore duty. The Marine Corps allows accommodations for beards except in combat zones, according to Giselle Klapper, the Sikh Coalition’s interim legal director.

There are also differences in the rules for medical accommodations.

Only the Marine Corps says the facial hair must be limited to the specific areas affected by the severe razor bumps, according to the services’ official policies, provided on Monday by a Navy spokesman. Only the Navy expressly allows service members with accommodations to shape their beards by clipping or trimming the edges.

The Marine Corps, unlike the Navy, can authorize some permanent no-shave accommodations.

Del Toro has tasked his department’s assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment with making sure that “any actions” the department might implement “maintain the integrity of regulatory safety compliance,” before those actions get implemented, according to the court filing.

That assistant secretary must conduct a department-wide review of policy to make sure it complies with “respiratory protection regulatory requirements.”

Both assistant secretaries have until mid-June to inform Del Toro of “actions, if any, taken or proposed to be taken in the future.”

Although the Navy and the Marine Corps are under the same department, they have distinct guidelines governing uniforms and grooming. The Corps tends to have more rigid uniform rules than the other services, including the Navy.

For instance, male sailors can grow their hair longer than male Marines, who must trim their hair down to the skin right above their ears.

Earlier in February, when the Navy allowed sailors to start resting their hands in their pockets, the Marine Corps did not follow suit.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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