A cutting-issue rabbi sues the Army: Let me keep my beard

A cutting-issue rabbi sues the Army: Let me keep my beard

WASHINGTON — Menachem Stern’s bushy black beard is at the center of a federal court case.

Stern, 29, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi from Brooklyn, N.Y., filed suit recently against the U.S. Army saying that a no-beard restriction violates his religious freedom.

In January 2009, Stern had applied to become a chaplain in the Army, which has been historically short on Jewish spiritual leaders.

That June, his application was accepted, according to a lawsuit filed Dec. 8 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., with one condition: He must shave his beard to comport with Army regulations prohibiting facial hair.

An Orthodox Jew who is prevented by halachah, or Jewish law, from shaving his facial hair, Stern maintains the Army’s requirement that he be clean shaven is overly burdensome and violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

But rules are rules, the Army asserts, and Stern — like the 550,000 other enlisted personnel — must adhere to the military’s strict regulations if he wishes to serve.

Stern, however, argues that his journey through the Army’s bureaucracy has revealed widespread contradictions in the way its polices are applied to service members. Enlistees from other religions, he said, have been granted facial hair exemptions in the past.

From the outset, Stern explained in an interview, he made it clear that his beard is fundamental to his faith.

“By not trimming my beard, I represent the unadulterated view of the holy Torah, the way we believe a person should live,” Stern wrote in his original chaplain application. “It is the strength Jews have retained of traditions for thousands of years.”

After submitting his application, Stern then filed a formal request to be exempted from shaving his facial hair, according to court documents.

In his request, Stern points to Leviticus chapter 19, noting that as a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, he is “strictly prohibited from shaving or removing” his facial hair “in any manner.”

On Sept. 1, 2009, the unshaven Stern was appointed formally as a reserve commissioned officer and instructed to complete the Chaplain Officer Basic Course.

The following day, however, his appointment was rescinded.

A missive penned by Col. Scottie Lloyd, the Army’s director of Human Resources and Ecclesiastical Relations, noted that Stern’s appointment was an “administrative error” wrongly sent. He did not qualify for active duty, Lloyd continued, “because of the military regulation prohibiting the wearing of beards.”

Rabbi Sanford Dresin intervened to advocate on Stern’s behalf. As executive director of chaplains at the Aleph Institute, a group that certifies and provides support for Jewish chaplains, Dresin thought he could run interference.

With just nine active duty rabbis serving as Army chaplains, Dresin believes the Army should bend its rule to accommodate Stern — as it has in the past.

Dresin — as well as Stern and his lawyer, Nathan Lewin of the Washington firm Lewin & Lewin — argue that the military is being overly rigid in its enforcement of the facial hair policy, as service members from the Muslim and Sikh religions have been granted similar exemptions.

“Do you think that one or two rabbis are going to destroy good authority and discipline in the army?” Dresin rhetorically wondered in an interview. “We are not asking for a blanket exemption. We are not asking that you change the regulation. We are just asking for equal opportunity.”

An Army spokesman declined to comment on Stern’s case specifically, but said in an interview that the Army’s guidelines are straightforward.

“We consider [people] on a case-by-case basis,” George Wright said.

Any exemption that is granted, Wright added, would apply during an explicitly delineated period of time, meaning that no enlistee can receive blanket immunity from the regulation.

Moreover, no applicant can be granted a pass before formal admittance into the Army, which means that Stern would have to shave his beard first before asking for permission to grow it back.

“I asked them [Army officials], ‘Do you want me to be a hypocrite?’ ” Stern recalled in an interview. “To shave it only to grow it back?”

Unruly beards, others maintain, are unseemly and make service members appear sloppy.

“It’s unbecoming really of a person in uniform,” said Rabbi Marvin Bash, who served as a Jewish chaplain at Fort Belvoir in Virginia and is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, Va. Large beards “somehow go beyond what we call ‘tight regulations’ [that] are neat looking.”

While Bash admitted that the military’s guidelines and policy for exemption can seem fuzzy, the beard ban itself is clear.

“I would either say [Stern trims] it or he’s out,” Bash said, explaining that in his opinion, “there’s no halachah that says you can’t trim the beard.”

Asked if he’d be open to trimming his beard, Stern was dubious.

“I believe my beard is neat,” he said. “I take care of it.”

While the Army has not formally responded to the lawsuit, Lewin said the suit is relatively “clean cut,” as a litany of documentation illustrates the Army’s unjust conduct. Lewin litigated and won a similar case against the Air Force in 1976.

For Stern, the case comes down to duty and mission.

“I believe this is my calling and mission,” he said. “I want to get into the service.”