Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hasidic Jews in the Military


The Army has recently settled in a suit that banned Rabbi Menachem Stern from being an army chaplain due to his Hasidic faith that prohibits him from shaving his beard, violating Army regulations restricting facial hair. In 2009, Stern received approval for a reserve commission slot in the Army but was later rejected due to the issues over his beard. This is not the first time the Army has faced a decision regarding a person’s religious duty and the strict standards of the military. Colonel Jacob Goldstein, also a bearded Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi was granted an exemption for his facial hair and has served in the US Army Reserves and the National Guard for the past 33 years. Two Sikh captains were also granted a religious exemption that allowed them to wear a turban and have a beard while in uniform. When Stern was not granted this same exemption he filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Army of violating his free exercise and equal protection rights. According to Stern, “The Army rules, which only apply on entering service and can be waived for those who cannot shave for medical reasons, are discriminatory and violate the Constitution, especially because waivers have been granted to Sikh and Muslim soldiers.” The settlement allows for Rabbi Stern to join the military, which currently has a shortage of Jewish chaplains.

In my opinion this case is clear. The Army cannot grant an exception to some based on their religion and then restrict others based on the same issue. Their decision to withdraw the commissioning of Stern blatantly infringes upon his free exercise and that is why they finally allowed him to serve. In my opinion they were correct in setting a precedent approving beards for religious reasons and there is no excuse for why that precedent was ignored. It is indeed a slippery slope when dealing with religious exemptions and once given, the institution in charge needs to be prepared to offer them to all religious groups.

7 comments:

Ashley R said...

I agree with Jon. Just as Goldman should have been allowed to wear his yarmulke while on the job, so too should Rabbi Menachem Stern be allowed to serve as chaplain without the facial hair restrictions. The existence of several exemptions to the facial hair and headgear rules makes the ban for the Rabbi all the more unjust. I understand that the military must maintain a degree of uniformity and must take precaution upon allowing an exemption. However, considering that the Rabbi is seeking an exemption in order to perform a religious job, there is no reason for the army to reject him or not grant him an exemption because of his facial hair.

Harry R. said...

I agree with Jon that the military was wrong to restrict the rabbi's right to not shave his beard. Since they have allowed other individuals to serve in the military with facial hair kept for religious reasons, there is no support for their restricting facial hair in this instance. Doing so would impose differet restrictions on individuals on an arbitrary basis.

Ally R said...

I agree with the previous posts. In hiring a person to perform religious services, they should be permitted to remain loyal to their beliefs that they will soon be acting upon. Also, Jon brings up a good point in which he explains that when granting an exemption, the same exemption needs to be granted equally throughout the courts. By allowing some to keep their facial hair, while attempting to prohibit others, is in clear violation of one's free exercise.

Grant Z said...

I agree with the previous posts as well. The fact that there were previous exemptions granted for situations that were exactly the same is extremely strange. There is no question in my mind that Stern should be able to keep his beard, both on the grounds of previous exemptions and in general. If they have a shortage of Jewish chaplains, why wouldn’t they give him an exemption?

Kathryn M. said...

While I recognize concerns about military uniformity and discipline, I think that given Stern’s position as a chaplain, he should be permitted an exemption because he is acting in a non-combat role. Stern’s point that the army grants dress-code exemptions for other religious groups, including Sikh captains who were permitted to wear a turban and have a beard (very conspicuous), highlights inconsistency with the military disallowing Stern to keep his facial hair. This is a blatant violation of Stern’s free exercise, especially since the military has not presented any compelling state interest for these inconsistent restrictions.

Callie B said...

Similarly, I agree with Jon and the previous posts. Not only were other exemptions granted, they were granted to individuals in positions far more likely to have a "compelling state interest" of uniformity. The compelling state interest is weak as it is as it most protest against the gravest of offenses. The military gave no evidence for the potential harm of granting this exemption, especially because he will be fulfilling a explicitly religious position.

dvjcc said...

How many Hasidic Jews are in the military that do no serve in a religious manor, but are in combat?