In a military courtroom, you're not allowed to wear a beard. U.S. Army appearance rules forbid it, and so the trial of Major Nidal Hassan, accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, is now on hold. Major Hassan insists on wearing a beard, and says it's an expression of his Muslim faith. The judge instead has ordered him to shave, forcibly if necessary.
Now, the trial originally scheduled to begin on August 20, is on hold, pending an appeals court decision on the beard.
Hassan's defense attorneys say the beard is for religious reasons. Hassan fears he will die soon, and believes it'd be sinful to die without a beard. Prosecutors however claim that Hassan is trying to delay the trial and make it harder for witnesses to identify him. Hassan faces life in prison or the death penalty if he's found guilty.
So far, Hassan has already received two fines of $1,000 for having a beard, and has been forced to watch all pre-trial proceedings from TVs outside the courtroom. The military is allowed to forcibly shave Hasan under current U.S. Army regulations.
The ban on facial hair is a relatively modern facet of military regulation. The military insists the ban has nothing to do with religion, and instead reflects values of discipline and order in the current era. In the past, facial hair was not regulated. 19th century military leaders were known for bombastic facial hair, like Ulysses S. Grant.
Eugene Fidell, teaches military justice at Yale Law School
Correction: In the audio version of this story, an example of an earlier case was incorrectly summarized. At issue in Goldman v. Weinberger (1986) was whether an Orthodox Jew who was an Air Force officer had a right under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to wear a skullcap, not a beard as referred to in the interview. The Supreme Court found no such right given the military’s need to “foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps.”