Yarmulke in the Military (Part 1)

Perhaps the most notable American court decision involving the yarmulke is Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503 (1986). In Goldman, the U.S. Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether an Air Force policy prohibiting personnel from wearing headgear indoors violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, because it prohibited the wearing of a yarmulke. This post will summarize the Goldman decision, and a future post will discuss the legislative response and current law.

Facts: Simcha Goldman entered the Air Force as a commissioned officer and served as a clinical psychologist. For several years he wore a yarmulke without any incident. However, after testifying at a court martial wearing his yarmulke, one of the attorneys complained about Goldman’s violation of an Air Force regulation that prohibited personnel from wearing headgear indoors. After refusing to comply with the regulation, Goldman was reprimanded and subsequently brought suit in U.S. District Court, arguing that the regulation violated his constitutional right to exercise his religious beliefs.

Analysis: The Court started by stating that in First Amendment cases involving the military, it “must give great deference to the professional judgment of military authorities concerning the relative importance of a particular military interest.” This is so, because in order “to accomplish its mission the military must foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps.” The Air Force had determined that uniformity in dress promotes discipline and unity. The Court noted that the line drawn between visible religious apparel (which the Air Force prohibited) and apparel that was not visible (which it allowed) was reasonable and evenhanded.

Holding: The Air Force regulation prohibiting the wearing of headgear indoors does not violate the First Amendment.

It is interesting to observe that the opposing interests involved here are in fact rooted in common notions. The Supreme Court in Goldman noted that “[t]he essence of military service ‘is the subordination of the desires and interests of the individual to the needs of the service.'” The idea that uniform requirements promote the subordination of personal desires and interests is one of the concepts underlying the practice of Jewish men covering their heads. As discussed in an earlier post, the goal of the yarmulke is to humble man before God and discourage him from sinning. Thus, although conflicting on the surface, the military’s interest in requiring standardized dress and the halachic requirement of covering one’s head have a similar premise.



Filed under American Law, Yarmulke / Head Covering

2 responses to “Yarmulke in the Military (Part 1)

  1. Irving W.

    It appears that in the Goldman case the court was not interested in the common goal of each of the parties (the subordination of their interests) but that the fulfillment of Goldman’s observant belief was in conflict with the military.
    Should this be called a conundrum? I’m looking forward to the legislative response and the current law in the future post.

    • You’re right. In fact, the majority opinion did not even mention the reason for wearing a yarmulke. In contrast, Justice Brennan’s dissent, emphasizes the reason for the practice, as well as the fact that the Air Force’s regulation set up “an almost absolute bar to the fulfillment of a religious duty.” Brennan criticized the majority’s blind deference to military policy, and argued that wearing a yarmulke does not really interfere with the Air Force’s interests. Take a look for yourself (click here).

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