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Army grants religious waiver for Christian soldier to grow long hair and beard

A man with a beard. (Loren Kerns/Flickr)
August 02, 2021

The U.S. Army is now allowing a soldier to grow out his hair and beard while in uniform after his request for a religious accommodation based on his Christian beliefs.

Sgt. Jacob DiPietro, a cargo specialist with the Florida Army Reserve’s 489th Transportation Company, won approval for a religious accommodation to grow out his hair after a two-year process, Task & Purpose reported Friday. DiPietro requested the accommodation in order to observe the Nazarite vow, a ritual originating in the Old Testament of the Bible, which states that for those observing the vow “no razor may be used on their head.” 

DiPietro first applied for a religious exemption in November 2019. The Army’s normal dress and grooming standards for male soldiers states, “The hair on top of the head must be neatly groomed. The length and bulk of the hair may not be excessive and must present a neat and conservative appearance. The hair must present a tapered appearance. A tapered appearance is one where the outline of the Soldier’s hair conforms to the shape of the head curving inward to the natural termination point at the base of the neck. When the hair is combed, it will not fall over the ears or eyebrows, or touch the collar, except for the closely cut hair at the back of the neck.”

Army grooming standards further state “sideburns will not extend below the bottom of the opening of the ear” and “Males will keep their face clean-shaven when in uniform, or in civilian clothes on duty. Mustaches are permitted. If worn, males will keep mustaches neatly trimmed, tapered, and tidy. Mustaches will not present a chopped off or bushy appearance, and no portion of the mustache will cover the upper lip line, extend sideways beyond a vertical line drawn upward from the corners of the mouth.”

Beards are typically permitted only if appropriate medical authorities approve of it and prescribe a specific length.

DiPietro joined the Army in 2010, the day he turned 18, Task & Purpose reported. He began his Army service as a Shower/Laundry and Clothing Repair Specialist before becoming a cargo specialist.

DiPietro described his Army service as going well until he experienced a “really dark time” in his personal life after he returned from a 2017 deployment to Kuwait. He was married to a woman he had been dating for years, but when she became pregnant with their first child, she left. It was at this point, DiPietro decided to pray and read from the book of Numbers, where he learned of the Nazarite vow. 

The vow, found in Numbers 6, states that as a ritual to dedicate themselves to their god as a “Nazarite,” practitioners of the vow shall not cut their hair or consume alcohol or any part of the grape plant for the duration of their vow. Practitioners must also avoid the presence of dead bodies.

“I said, ‘Oh, this is it,’” DiPietro said. “I just felt utterly compelled that this is what I was being called to do.” 

DiPietro said he researched for about six months leading up to his religious accommodation request because “anything, down to the periods at the ends of the sentences, the Army was going to use that as a reason to deny my request.”

His initial request was rejected at the battalion level due to a formatting error. DiPietro corrected the error and resubmitted the request to his battalion leadership in December 2019. In June 2020, after months of waiting, Brig. Gen. Stephen Rutner, commander of the Army Reserve deployment support command, issued a memo approving his request.

Rutner wrote, “Despite the [Office of the Chief of Chaplains] position that this accommodation lacks a ‘religious basis’ and is not a required tenet of the soldier’s faith, there is every indication that this moral decision to adhere to the Nazarite vow is a large and important pillar to his spiritual health and well-being.”

DiPietro was later informed that Rutner could only apply to an exemption to grow a beard and that the general lacked the authority to allow DiPietro to also grow out his hair. DiPietro continued to press his case but by March 2020 he still hadn’t received a response. He then contacted his local congressional office and asked for their help and asked chaplains he knew who worked in the Pentagon if they knew anyone who might be able to do something, to help him move his request forward.

On July 25, 2021, DiPietro finally received an email to his inbox from Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, stating his request to grow out his hair had been approved and DiPietro could continue to grow his hair in accordance with the standards for long hair set forth in AR 670-1.

The long hair provision of AR 670-1 states, “Long hair will be neatly and inconspicuously fastened or pinned above the lower edge of the collar except that bangs may be worn. . . No portion of the bulk of the hair, as measured from the scalp as styled, will exceed 2 inches (except a bun, which is worn on the back of the head and may extend a maximum of 3 1/2 inches from the scalp and be no wider than the width of the head).”

In 2017, the Army did ease the rules surrounding accommodations for growing beards.

“The soldier’s brigade-level commander will approve a request for a religious accommodation … unless the commander determines the request is not based on a sincerely held religious belief, or identifies a specific, concrete hazard that is not specifically addressed in this directive and that cannot be mitigated by reasonable measures,” then-Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning said in 2017.

Beards have been permitted to soldiers in limited circumstances. In May 2019, the Army permitted 14 practicing Sikh soldiers to grow their beards. In 2019, a Nevada National Guardsman was also permitted to grow out his beard, in accordance with his Norse pagan beliefs.

The U.S. Air Force has similarly accommodated a Muslim airman’s request to grow a beard.

DiPietro told Task & Purpose his advice to soldiers similarly seeking religious accommodations is, “If you’re serious about your request, do not give up. I don’t care what they do, or what they say, do not stand down. If you know you’re right, the regulations will — it may not seem like it — but they will protect you. Stand by your decision.” 

But DiPietro added, “If you’re trying to fleece the system because you just don’t want to shave, or you just want to grow your hair out, I’m telling you now: It’s not gonna work.”