WASHINGTON (Jun. 18)
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide for the first time whether an Orthodox Jew may wear a yarmulke while on duty in any of the United States armed forces.
The case centers around Rabbi Simcha Goldman who, while on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, was ordered to remove his yarmulke. Chaplain Goldman had served in the Air Force for three years when a new base commander ordered him, on pain of disciplinary action, to remove his skull cap.
Before his stint in the Air Force, he had served as a chaplain in the Navy for several years, a period during which his wearing his yarmulke was not challenged by his superiors. After leaving Navy service, he obtained a doctorate in psychology and enlisted in the Air Force to serve as a psychologist.
LOWER COURT DECISION REVERSED
After the warning from the new base commander, Goldman filed suit in the federal district court in Washington in 1981 and a decision in his favor was handed down in 1982. A circuit court of appeals reversed that ruling, upholding the authority of the Air Force. An appeal was filed with the Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the case during the fall 1985 term.
The defense has been handled by Nathan Lewin, a vice president of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA). Lewin has argued there is a constitutional right to wear a yarmulke under the freedom of religious expression clause of the First Amendment, and that this does not interfere with the military functions of the wearer.
CASE HAS BROADER QUESTION
Lewin declared that the Defense Department has argued that any variation in the uniformity of the military dress code would result in disintegration of morale and discipline in the armed forces, a position sustained by the appeals court.
Lewin said the case represents the broader problem between exercise of religious belief and laws which appear to be prohibiting the exercise of those religious beliefs. He said an important larger question is: When does a general obligation have to yield in the face of a religious conviction?
Goldman quit the Air Force but retained reserve status. He is now a practicing psychologist at Chabad House in Los Angeles.