This morning, Rabbi Menachem Stern, a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi, will join the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. It wasn’t always clear he could. Like other Hasidic Jews, Rabbi Stern interprets a passage from Leviticus to require men to wear beards. Army regulations generally forbid beards. Rabbi Stern sued, arguing that the no-beards rule, as applied to a Hasidic Jew like him, violated the Free Exercise Clause. The Army settled the case and granted Stern a waiver, as it has done for Sikh and Muslim soldiers whose religious beliefs also require them to wear beards.
I haven’t seen Rabbi Stern’s complaint, but I imagine he relied heavily on then-Judge Alito’s famous decision in Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Newark (3d Cir. 1999), which struck down a police department’s no-beards rule. The rule exempted police officers who grew beards for medical reasons, but not those who grew beards for religious reasons. Alito concluded that denying an exemption for religious reasons, while allowing an exemption for secular reasons, violated the Free Exercise Clause. Like the police department regulations in Fraternal Order of Police, Army regulations appear to allow soldiers to wear beards if a medical condition requires it.