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Court Rules Air Force Cannot Penalize Personnel Who Wear Beards for Religious Purposes

A.U.S. District Court has ruled that the U.S. Air Force has no right to penalize personnel who wear beards for religious reasons. Judge Aubrey E. Robinson, Jr. handed down this decision last Thursday in directing the Air Force to reinstate Lt. Col. Mitchell D. Geller, an Orthodox rabbi, to his former status as an active reserve chaplain and give him all promotions due him since 1972 and back pay since 1973.

Geller, who lives in Norwich, Conn., said when he joined the Air Force in 1950, he did not feel a religious obligation to wear a beard. But when his father died in 1966, he felt he then did have a personal obligation to do so. For six years he was not challenged. But then the commander of Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts ordered Geller to shave off his beard, he refused and subsequently was reassigned to inactive reserve status.

Geller sued the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force charging his First Amendment right to freedom of religion was being violated. His lawyer, Nathan Lewin, called it ironic that the Air Force appointed Geller for religious purposes as a chaplain but was trying to “prevent that religious leader’s exercise of his religious obligation.”

The Air Force contended Geller “must accept the fact that as a military officer he must adhere to the Air Force appearance and dress standards” and that it was requiring no more or less of him than is required of other members of the Air Force. In upholding Geller’s claim, Robinson ruled that the court is persuaded by the record that “the wearing of beards, although not required, is a well-established religious tradition among members of the Jewish faith, and that Geller “wore his beard in furtherance of that religious practice.”

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