Col Gregory Gross, the judge presiding over the murder trial of US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan for the Fort Hood massacre, followed through on his threat and issued an order that Hasan must shave — or he will be shaved.
Gross…issued his order Thursday after a hearing to determine whether a federal religious freedom law applied to Hasan’s case. Soldiers may be granted permission to grow beards for religious reasons, and six soldiers have been allowed to do so: a rabbi, two Muslim doctors and three Sikhs, according to Army records.
Hasan said he is violating regulations not out of disrespect, but of religious requirement:
Hasan told the judge last week that he grew a beard because his Muslim faith requires it, not as a show of disrespect. Gross ruled Thursday that the defense didn’t prove Hasan is growing a beard for sincere religious reasons.
While the whole concept might sound a bit odd to outsiders, forced shaving is actually a procedure within the military prison system:
The Army has specific guidelines on forced shaving. A team of five military police officers restrains the inmate “with the reasonable force necessary,” and a medical professional is on hand in case of injuries. The shaving must be done with electric clippers and must be videotaped, according to Army rules.
While not routine, it is apparently not all that uncommon, either:
Army correctional facilities have forcibly shaved prisoners six times since 2005, most recently in June 2011.
The US Supreme Court has previously ruled the US military is not obligated to accommodate every religious practice. In fact, Goldman v Weinberger was on the very topic of religious apparel (a yarmulke) that “would detract from the uniformity sought by dress regulations.” The Court upheld the right of the Air Force to ban it. Only then did the US Congress alter military policies to allow accommodation of “neat and conservative” religious accoutrements. (Interestingly, the Jewish headgear is the only such accoutrement allowed by name.)
The military generally tries to, and should, accommodate religious practices to the extent the mission allows; restrictions should be the minimum required and only as necessary to support the mission. Nothing says the military is required to accommodate such practices, however. Just because a Lieutenant walks into work one day with a nose ring — for “religious reasons” — doesn’t mean he gets to keep it.
In short, under current government policies the US Army is allowed to decide if Hasan wears the beard or not. Choosing to let him keep it is arguably the harder decision to defend. The current military “mission,” as it were, is to give Hasan a fair trial (without any judicial fault). Allowing him to wear a beard in court, or prohibiting a bearded Hasan from appearing in court during his own trial, may interfere with that mission. While forcible shaving sounds harsh, it is likely the more equitable course of action. After all, absent a specific religious accommodation (which the military isn’t required to give), that’s the same treatment every other prisoner would receive under the same circumstances.
A governmental interpretation of religious “sincerity” is, and has always been, problematic. Still, it is notable Hasan waited until now to grow his beard, despite having been a Muslim for many years. He has made a reference to a premonition of “imminent death” that requires his beard, though one would assume that same foreboding occurred before he (allegedly) shot up Fort Hood. Then again, had he grown the beard then, this conversation might not be happening.
The fact remains that a person seeking religious accommodation (or even conscientious objection) is required to continue obeying military policies until an exception is granted. Failure to do so could result in any of a variety of punishments which would be meted out based on the offense, irrespective of religion.
This months-long argument over Hasan’s beard clearly poses an issue of religious freedom and military policies, and while the answer should be fairly clear, it is not necessarily intuitive to outside observers. That’s why Michael Weinstein, founder of “the sole nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to ensuring” religious freedom for US troops, has been so vocal on this topic. To date, Weinstein has publicly said this about Hasan’s religious freedom claims and the military judge’s response:
It would seem that if the topic isn’t a conspiracy theory about US military Christians secretly plotting a holocaust, your religious freedom “issue” just doesn’t rate.