Sunday, March 26, 2006

Skullcap on Recruit's Head Keeps Him From Serving in Coast Guard

The New York Times
Skullcap on Recruit's Head Keeps Him From Serving in Coast Guard

Jack Rosenberg wants to serve his country.

Mr. Rosenberg, a 34-year-old tire technician and a certified pilot from Spring Valley, N.Y., signed up for the Coast Guard Auxiliary last year, hoping to fly on search-and-rescue missions and the like.

He underwent a full military background check. He had several sets of fingerprints taken. He passed the boating test and the written course.

"But as soon as I got sworn in and got ready to put on the uniform," Mr. Rosenberg said, "the commander came to me and said it's going to be a problem."

The problem was on top of Mr. Rosenberg's head. He is a Hasidic Jew, and he wears a skullcap at all times except when showering or swimming. The skullcap clashed with the uniform.

Wearing a visible piece of religious garb violates Coast Guard regulations. It says so in the Coast Guard manual, right between "Umbrellas" ("Plain black or navy blue, expandable, straight handle. Must be carried in left hand.") and "Backpacks" ("Must be carried in left hand when in uniform"). "Religious Items," the manual says. "Concealed or worn only during religious services."

Mr. Rosenberg's main skullcap, a black velvet model, is about six inches across. On occasions when Coast Guard protocol calls for wearing the official cap, including most outdoor activities, it would conceal the skullcap.

But indoors, auxiliarists are not supposed to wear their caps. (They are also told not to wear them while walking to a plane at an airport; a blast of prop wash could lead to the undignified sight of an auxiliarist chasing his bounding cap across the tarmac.)

If Mr. Rosenberg had joined the Army, things might be different. Since 1987, in response to a lawsuit, the armed services have let members wear skullcaps, head scarves, and other religious garments "except under circumstances in which an item is not neat and conservative or its wearing shall interfere with the performance of the member's military duties."

Other organizations have dealt with similar controversies. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has eased its restrictions even as it fights a federal suit involving bus drivers who were not allowed to wear their Muslim head scarves.

But the Coast Guard does not answer to the Department of Defense, or to the transportation authority for that matter. It is under the Department of Homeland Security, and it has its own regulations.

Mr. Rosenberg said his flotilla commander, Arthur Ramirez, of the auxiliary unit based in Lincoln Park., N.J., tried to accommodate him.

"Is it possible," Commander Ramirez asked in an e-mail message, "that you could wear a 'miniature' yarmulke, small enough to be concealed by your hair?"

It would have to be very small indeed. Mr. Rosenberg is bald on top.

Commander Ramirez referred the matter to his supervisors, to no avail.

Things looked grim. Mr. Rosenberg's smart blue dress uniform hung unworn in a closet in his home in Rockland County. He was not about to compromise on the skullcap, which Orthodox Jews commonly wear to remind them of God's position above humankind.

"If my religion requires it," Mr. Rosenberg said, "there's not a choice."

A relative referred Mr. Rosenberg to a state assemblyman in Brooklyn, Dov Hikind, who has many Orthodox constituents. Mr. Hikind wrote on March 7 to the commandant of the Coast Guard, reminding him that a homeland security expert at the University of Maryland had recently called the Coast Guard "vastly understaffed and underresourced" and that turning away a willing volunteer might not be a good idea.

The commandant has not responded. But as it turns out, the Coast Guard's uniform board has its annual meeting this week in Washington.

One item up for discussion is whether to relax the restrictions on religious accessories to bring them in line with armed forces policy. The policy chief for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Steve Minutolo, said he expected a change.

"I'd be striving to align as closely as possible with our D.O.D. counterparts," he said, adding that he had not heard of Mr. Rosenberg's case and that the proposal had been in the works long before Mr. Hikind's letter.

So it now looks as if Mr. Rosenberg may be able to take his uniform out of the closet after all. As long as he keeps his beard less than half an inch long, that is.

Or at least, as long as it looks as if he does.

"Do you know how long my beard is?" Mr. Rosenberg asked. He reached under his chin, undid a hidden black rubber band, and pulled and teased and pulled and teased until two long locks of hair flowed down from his chin to his navel.

"You just have to keep it up," he said.