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Does the Army’s ‘No-Beard’ Rule Discriminate Against Jews?

A rabbi from Brooklyn is challenging the Army’s “no-beard” policy after his application to become a chaplain was rejected because of military rules against facial hair. The rabbi says the service is discriminating against religious Jews because it has waived the rule for other religions:

Menachem M. Stern’s lawsuit argues the Army is discriminating against him because it has waived the “no-beard” rule for several Sikhs and a Muslim, but not for him. Advocates hope the case, if successful, will pave the way for more bearded rabbis to become chaplains and minister to historically underserved Jewish soldiers.

“While they’re stalling me, they’re taking in other religions, for instance, Sikhs and Muslims with beards and turbans at the same time,” Stern said. “At that point, my question became, ‘Who says yes and who says no?’ It shows how in a great institution such as the Army, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”

I can understand a general military rule against beards, but it’s surprising that the rules don’t carry an exception for chaplains, as Stern’s attorney points out:

“Even if the military thinks regular servicemen should be clean-shaven, clearly chaplains who are teaching religion are in a different category,” said Stern’s Washington attorney, Nathan Lewin. “If a rabbi wears a beard and a beard is after all traditionally associated with the Jewish faith, nobody’s going to take it as being some violation of military discipline. It just means the rabbi, like he puts a yarmulke on his head, is wearing a beard because that’s what’s religiously required of him.”

According to the article, there is only one Jewish chaplain with a beard in the Army. His beard was approved before 1986, so it’s apparently not subject to the current rules. The Army has also waived the no-beard rule at least four times over the past two years, for two Sikh officers, a Muslim intern at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and a Sikh enlisted soldier.

I suppose the Army might have had an urgent need to fill these four positions and granted facial-hair exceptions under those circumstances. And perhaps there isn’t a similar need for Jewish chaplains. Unless the Army is committing a blatant act of religious discrimination, those seem to be the most likely explanations.


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