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Yarmulke Ruling Applauded

September 29, 1987
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A Jewish leader Sunday hailed Friday’s passage of a Senate bill which would allow the wearing of religious headgear by members of the military. Rabbi David Saperstein, co-director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called the passage of the so-called “yarmulke amendment” a “victory for religious liberty and a demonstration of effective cooperation by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish groups.”

Saperstein also praised Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D. NJ), who introduced the amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would permit members of the armed forces to wear yarmulkes, turbans and other religious apparel. The measure was prompted by last year’s Supreme Court decision that upheld an Air Force regulation barring a captain from wearing his yarmulke.

In 1986, the high court refused the appeal of Rabbi Simcha Goldman, an Air Force psychologist, to be allowed to wear a yarmulke on duty in-doors, where a military hat is not permitted, It was the first time the Supreme Court heard a case involving religious practice in the military.

Goldman left the Air Force at the completion of his active term of duty in 1981, but continued the appeal by suing for damages of two days’ emergency leave pay, equalling about $150.

Prior to the case being taken to court, Goldman tried to work out an agreement with his attorneys to allow him to continue working at his Air Force position. When those negotiations pressured Goldman to take off the yarmulke or be subject to court martial. At that point, his attorneys decided to take the matter to Federal District Court. Between those two times, when negotiations failed, Goldman was liable to prosecution if on duty with a yarmulke. It was then that he applied for emergency leave, which removed his obligation to wear a military uniform.

Because of the Supreme Court ruling in the Air Force’s favor, Goldman did not win the damages. Goldman, 41, who is now program director of the Chabad House drug program in Los Angeles, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he is not planning to return to the Air Force, although “I enjoyed my years in the Air Force,” he said. He did, however, offer interest in getting back to the Air Force reserves.

He had been told that because of his age, he was no longer eligible for reserve duty. But with the law passed, “I may look into it again,” Goldman said.

Overall, he said, he is “very pleased” about the Senate vote, although, he added, “I’ll be interested in whether the military implements it in the spirit that the Congress ordered them to do so.”


Friday’s 55-42 vote in the Senate on the “yarmulke amendment” stipulates that the apparel must be “neat and conservative” and cannot “interfere with the performance of the member’s military duties.” The Senate rejected a similar amendment last year by two votes. This year’s vote marked the first time the Senate has approved the proposal. The House approved the same legislation, first offered and adopted in 1984 by Rep. Stephen Solarz (D. NY) in its version of legislation drafted by Goldman’s attorney, Nathan Lewin, establishing Defense Department programs. The legislation approved Friday was an amendment to the Senate’s version of the Defense Appropriations Bill.

The amendment, Lautenberg said, presents “those who are religious from being locked out of the services.”

The Senate military programs bill still faces major roadblocks for approval, however, because of division between Democrats and Republicans over two controversial amendments sponsored by Democrats: one of the amendments would require Congressional approval for the administration to continue providing military escorts for Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf; the other would require United States’ adherence to the as yet unratified treaty limiting strategic arms, because of other military spending provisions.

Opposition to the amendment was voiced by Sen. John Chafee (R. RI), who argued that wearing of religious apparel could be divisive. He said, “It’s a great mistake to permit the accentuation of the differences in our armed forces.”

The Reagan Administration, led by the Department of Defense, opposes the amendment, although it may be accepted as part of an overall military bill Reagan would otherwise approve. Reagan has already threatened to veto the Senate and the House versions of the military programs bill because of the arms control provisions.

Lautenberg said that under his proposal, the Defense Department would accept the standards for “neat and conservative” and could decide when the wearing of religious apparel would interfere with military duties. Lautenberg did not say what precise religious apparel he thought would be permitted, although he expressed doubt that “the wearing of robes or daggers would be allowed.” He said the main concern for observant Jews was permission to wear the yarmulke indoors when conventional military headgear is not permitted.

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