Gays and bearded rabbis in the military

How ironic for the US Army, an institution that fights for the rights of Americans to practice their faiths openly, would curtail those very same rights.

US soldiers participate in Gay rights march, San Diego_311 (photo credit: Reuters/Mike Blake)
US soldiers participate in Gay rights march, San Diego_311
(photo credit: Reuters/Mike Blake)
The military Chaplain Accession Board found Rabbi Menachem Stern fully qualified to serve, but then rescinded a formal letter of acceptance because he refused to shave his beard.
Although beards are not required according to Jewish law, Stern is a member of Chabad, which encourages its members to grow beards in accordance with a literal interpretation of Leviticus 27:19, which states that “one shall not mar the corners of the beard.”
The military argued that beards violated uniform and appearance regulations. Rabbi Stern filed suit in federal court arguing that his constitutional right to religious freedom had been violated, and the military finally settled. His swearing-in ceremony was held on December 9, last Friday.
The case was reminiscent of a 2009 incident in which Capt. Kamaljeet Kalsi, a devout Sikh, successfully fought for the right to sport a turban, beard and unshorn hair. Then, too, acting Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gina Farrisee stated that factors such as “unit cohesion, morale, discipline, safety and/or health” are considered when deciding whether to allow beards in the military.
The beard issue is particularly relevant in light of recent legislation that repealing the ban on gays openly serving in the military, thus putting an end to government-sanctioned discrimination against the LGBT community. The military’s rationale for discriminating against homosexuals was not far removed from its reasons for discriminating against rabbis, Sikhs and Muslims with beards.
On July 20, 1993, General Colin Powell testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that being openly gay “undercuts the cohesion of the group” because it “is too far away from the norm.” The argument was that allowing gays to serve would undermine unit cohesion.
It seems clear to me, and hopefully to others, that individuals who desire to serve our country, regardless of their sexual inclinations, should not be prevented from doing so on unsubstantiated claims that they are a threat to “cohesion.”
There are of course cases where religious garb could undermine the safety of military procedures. For instance, a beard interfering with a gas mask could post a real threat, and in that case protecting the soldier’s life should undoubtedly outweigh his right to religious expression. But that was not the case, either for Rabbi Stern for for Captain Kalsi.
But there is no justification for requiring people to violate the tenets of their faith because of government-issued, seemingly aesthetic, unsubstantiated, vague notions of “cohesion.” Religious men in the armed forces should not be prevented from growing a beard. Homosexuals should not be prevented from serving merely because they are gay.
THERE ARE strong reasons the military should encourage religious individuals to serve. By virtue of a dedication to a belief in a higher power, the devoutly uncompromisingly religious person is in fact inclined to notions of self-sacrifice, selflessness and unyielding loyalty. Those qualities bring clear benefit to the military.
Furthermore, besides the fact that denying qualified, bearded religious people from serving in the military is unconstitutional, silly and a disservice to our military’s efforts to recruit competent soldiers, it is also counter-intuitive because beards are historically a sign of masculinity and strength.
Militaries are institutions with longstanding aesthetic and social traditions related to uniform and appearance. However, when those aesthetic traditions infringe on religious rights and prevent qualified American citizens from being able to serve their country, then those traditions must come under scrutiny.
In addition, it is ironic that the US military, an institution that fights for the rights of Americans to practice their faiths openly or express their sexual orientations free from discrimination, would curtail those very same rights in their own institution.
I salute the brave men and women serving in our military and also recognize that these broad policies do not detract from the self-sacrifice they have shown our nation. With Rabbi Stern’s case and the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it seems like the tide is finally turning.
In December 2011, Kalsi received a Bronze Star, the fourth-highest combat award, for using his expertise in emergency medicine to save lives in Afghanistan – including the resuscitation of two clinically dead soldiers.
Another example of a person in the military donning a beard for religious reasons is Rabbi Col. Jacob Goldstein, who has had a distinguished career since 1977, fighting in Bosnia, South Korea, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Over 30 years ago, Goldstein was granted an exclusive, one-time exception to wear a beard. After the September 11, 2011 attacks Goldstein also served as the senior chaplain for all military units at Ground Zero. Their self-sacrifice and dedication to their comrades-in-arms and to the ultimate American values of freedom and justice are the best possible argument to favor Constitutional rights over vacuous, undefined notions of “cohesion.”

The writer is a graduate of the City University of New York School of Law, where he served as an executive editor of the law review and interned for civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby.