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Goldman v. Weinberger (1986)

Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty

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Background Information

S. Simcha Goldman was an Orthodox Jew and ordained rabbi serving as an officer in the U.S. Air Force and working as a clinical psychologist at his base's mental health clinic. Orthodox Jewish doctrines mandate that males cover their heads in the presence of God as a sign of respect. Many Jews argue that God is everywhere and, hence, they are always in his presence - thus they wear a skullcap, or yarmulke, all the time.

Military regulations, however, prohibited him from wearing his yarmulke indoors because headgear could not be worn inside "except by armed security police in the performance of their duties."

When outside Goldman wore his yarmulke underneath his service cap, but he was told that he would be subject to disciplinary action if he was found wearing a yarmulke inside. Goldman disobeyed orders and continued to wear his yarmulke while in uniform and while indoors. He was therefore disciplined and threatened with a court marshal.

Goldman then sued, claiming that this rights under the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment superseded Air Force regulations.

Court Decision

With the majority decision written by Justice Renhquist, the Supreme Court upheld the military rules 5-4. In his majority decision, Justice Rhenquist wrote:

Our review of military regulations challenged on First Amendment grounds is far more deferential than constitutional review of similar laws or regulations designed for civilian society. ...[W]hen evaluating whether military needs justify a particular restriction on religiously-motivated conduct, courts must give great deference to the professional judgment of military authorities concerning the relative importance of a particular military interest.

Military officials were not constitutionally required to condition their professional decisions to the Constitution because the military was found to be a "specialized society separate from civilian society" and "to accomplish its mission the military must foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps."

Things like obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps are, in turn, fostered by a sense of cohesivenes and common purpose among its members. An important means by which cohesiveness is created by the military is through strict regulation and commonality of the uniforms worn. Members are expected to subordinate their own desires and beliefs to the larger needs and objectives of the service. Thus, headgear worn for personal reasons could not be permitted.

Significance

The purpose of the military and its need to foster cohesiveness were regarded as appropriate justifications to restrict the religious rights of individuals. The Court did not try to evaluate the merit of military's claims about the importance of regulating the appearance of its members, deciding that the military should be left to make such final decisions rather than the courts.

This was one of the first cases decided by the "Reagan Court" - that is to say, a court made up mostly by justice appointed by President Ronald Reagan. This court consistently refused to apply the "compelling interest" test in questions of religious freedom and thus consistently found in favor of the government infringing upon the liberty of religious minorities based upon weaker justifications.

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