- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A newly admitted Muslim student is considering legal action to force The Citadel to change its dress code on religious freedom grounds after the public South Carolina military college denied her request to let her wear a religious head scarf.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is representing the student, is refusing to name her, but said she will not enroll unless the school’s policies on uniformity of dress are changed.

School President Lt. Gen. John Rosa said in a statement on Tuesday that uniformity in appearance is the “cornerstone” of the school’s leadership development model. Conformity of dress is necessary, he said, to teach cadets to sacrifice their sense of self.

“The standardization of cadets in apparel, overall appearance, actions and privileges is essential to the learning goals and objectives of the college,” Mr. Rosa said. “This process reflects an initial relinquishing of self during which cadets learn the value of teamwork to function as a single unit.”

Mr. Rosa said he still hopes the student, who was admitted as a part of The Citadel class of 2020, will decide to attend the college.

But Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for CAIR and a spokesman for the family, said the young woman was crying when she received the phone call informing her of the school’s decision. She said the policy is not fair, forcing her to choose her religion or the military academy she wants to attend.

William Burgess, senior staff attorney for CAIR, said the family is considering its legal options.

“Our nation’s military currently accommodates religious attire in the form of headscarves, beards and turbans,” Mr. Burgess said in a statement. “The Citadel should offer the same accommodations.”

In a statement Tuesday, CAIR upped the rhetorical ante, saying the school’s “desire to maintain an outdated ‘tradition’ … was the same argument used to initially deny admittance to African-Americans and women.” The statement noted that the Charleston school had no black students until 1966 and no women until 1995.

However, CAIR has been criticized for its ties to the past also.

Several former CAIR board members and staff have been linked to terrorist organizations. Federal prosecutors in 2007 listed the Muslim advocacy group as “unintended co-conspirators and/or joint venturers” in a criminal conspiracy to provide financial support to the terrorist group Hamas, whose mission is to destroy Israel.

The FBI, which worked closely with CAIR in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to deter hate crimes, cut off relations with the group in 2008 amid concerns about ties to terrorism.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said The Citadel erred in barring the student’s religious expression. He pointed to a case the ACLU won last year involving a Sikh ROTC student whose religion required him to wear a turban and forbade him from cutting his beard.

“The Citadel says it has an interest in absolutely uniform appearance, but the Army made the same argument in our recent lawsuit, and it didn’t hold water,” he said. “We filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Sikh ROTC student who was seeking an accommodation for his turban and beard, and the court ordered the Army to grant the accommodation.

“As the Army’s experience makes clear, religious accommodations like these pose no real threat to any important military interests,” he said.

The Department of Defense in 2014 issued an updated policy for religious military personnel, allowing accommodations for religious expression unless it could have an “adverse impact on military readiness.” The policy does not specify anything about hijabs but says the military will make every effort to accommodate religious expression on a case-by-case basis.

In 2011 the Pentagon granted permission to Muslim and Sikh students participating in Junior ROTC to wear hijabs and headscarves.

The ACLU sent a letter to The Citadel last month strongly urging the school to grant the student’s request. The group said failure to do so would violate South Carolina’s Religious Freedom Act, which, like other laws commonly known as RFRAs, requires reasonable religious accommodations in the absence of a compelling governmental interest.

“There is no evidence that the grooming and uniform accommodations granted to soldiers or cadets has impeded the military’s ability to achieve its overall mission or harmed the military’s interests in unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, individual and unit readiness, or health and safety,” the letter said.

Although the ACLU is citing the state’s RFRA to protect Muslim practice, the group has said it does not support such laws, which have the potential to protect religious dissenters from participating in same-sex wedding celebrations.

The ACLU had consistently championed such laws throughout its history, but, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling striking down laws defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, said they provide a license to discriminate against gay people “in virtually all aspects of their lives.”

Notorious for its strict code of conduct, The Citadel scripts what each student must wear down to the undergarments. Students are required to be in uniform almost unceasingly, both on and off campus, and both men and women are required to wear closely cropped hair. Accessories that draw special attention to the cadet are forbidden.

The 174-year-old military academy believes the unit functions best when individual identities are subordinated to the interest of the group as a whole. It teaches that identity should be rooted in character and service to others rather than personal possessions.

School policy allows “accommodation of religious practices unless accommodation will have an adverse impact on a competing institutional interest including, but not limited to, cohesion, morale, good order and discipline, cadet welfare, safety and/or health.”

A spokesman for the college said the hijab request was the first of its kind.

Mr. Rosa said the school is proud of its diverse student body, noting that several Muslim students attend the academy. He said The Citadel “recognizes the importance of a cadet’s spiritual and religious beliefs, providing specific needs whenever possible.”

After The Citadel announced it was mulling the accommodation, Cadet Nick Pinelli, who will be graduating from the academy this month, posted a message on Facebook decrying the request.

Mr. Pinelli said making a special accommodation for one student would not be fair to other students, who similarly leave aspects of their identities behind when they attend The Citadel.

“Those who came before her gave up their identities to attend this school,” he said. “Trust me, people from every walk of life have given up their identities to attend this school so that they leave here with their identities not only intact, but fortified.”

Mr. Pinelli also said it is “shameful that people expect to be accommodated by groups that are opposite to themselves.”

The cadet, who is reportedly an intern for the Donald Trump presidential campaign, concluded his post with, “For Christ’s sake, Make America Great Again.”

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