Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Case Of Religious Discrimination?

When I first heard this news blip on the radio a few minutes ago, I was astonished:
Airman 1st Class Andrew Howells of Salt Lake City says his commander threatened to kick him out of his unit if he did not remove his sacred religious undergarments. The undergarments are worn by faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

His commander complained the garments showed through his uniform.
First of all, by way of background: FH was in the Air Force for 8 years, and for most of those years was an endowed member*, meaning that he wore the religious undergarments in question. These garments are usually white, but they make special garments for service members that conform with uniform standards, particularly color standards, since a large white patch in the midst of a camouflaged camp would be like putting a neon sign out that said "Shoot Here". In particular, the BDU uniform that FH wore on a regular basis required a crew neck olive-drab shirt, so the garments were crew-neck and olive-drab and differed from the usual BDU undershirt only in their religiously significant markings, which were invisible when the uniform was worn as intended. White garments were worn with the dress uniform, and again garment-wearers are indistinguishable from non-garment-wearers when the uniform is worn as intended.

So it shocked me that anyone would complain that the man's garments showed through his uniform. Unless the uniforms have gotten much more diaphanous in the eight years that FH has not been in the Air Force, there was no way in hell that this could even be an issue.

I decided to do a bit more research on the case, because clearly there was some missing information here. And here is what I found out:

Airman Howells isn't in just any old Air Force unit. He's a member of Tops In Blue, the Air Force's elite entertainment corps. Tops In Blue takes only the best in the Air Force and has even launched some entertainment careers (Sinbad is a Tops In Blue alum). (Side note: FH took first place in the worldwide Air Force talent competition that is a prerequisite for admission to Tops In Blue, but he didn't want to be in it for various personal reasons.)

Tops In Blue performers often perform in groups and it's not unusual for them to be required to wear a costume or matching outfits, so it made more sense that Airman Howells' garments would show beneath something like that. And in fact, that's exactly what happened:
Off the stage, Tops in Blue members must wear a black polo shirt without a T-shirt underneath. Howells said the collar of his religious undergarments barely showed while wearing his black Tops in Blue polo shirt.
And now I was beginning to get a little cheesed off at Howells. White garments for everyday wear come in a few different choices of necklines. Men in particular can choose between the crew-neck style and a scoop-neck style. The latter is specifically designed so as to NOT show under a polo shirt or a button shirt with the top unbuttoned; the former is designed to show at the neckline in any context in which a normal crew-neck undershirt would. FH regularly wears polo shirts with the scoop neck garments, and his garments never even "barely" show. It sounds to me like Airman Howells had made a poor pairing of garments with outer clothes.

Now, it's possible that what was meant by "showing" was the outline of the garment becoming apparent under the polo shirt. If that's the case, it's got to be an extraordinarily cheap and thin polo shirt, because FH's medium-quality polos are too thick to show the outline of the garments. You'd think they'd invest a couple extra dollars in getting something better than the cheapest possible shirts for the elite Tops In Blue.

And it also looks like Howells got some poor advice as well:
Howells sought help from a Mormon chaplain based in Qatar, who suggested Howells wear a black T-shirt on top of his flak vest and underneath his black polo shirt to hide the undergarment.
Just for the record, endowed Mormons are allowed to remove their garments wherever those garments would interfere with a normal activity. You don't, for example, wear them while swimming. It's not too much of a stretch to, say, take them off for a brief appearance in a modest polo shirt, then get thee to the nearest Church Distribution Center and buy thyself a scoop-neck garment top. If Howells wasn't allowed to wear a white T-shirt under his polo because no T-shirts were allowed, what on Earth made the chaplain think the solution was to wear TWO shirts?? The issue wasn't color clash; it was that a T-shirt shows through the neckline of a polo.

Still, though, it sounds like the commanding officer was insensitive:
Howells said the July 18 ultimatum came at an airport in Incirlik, Turkey, just before Howell's unit boarded a plane to Qatar, Iraq.

He said his commander told him, "(You) have a choice to make: lose the shirt or leave the tour.''
It wouldn't surprise me if the polos had been handed out to them practically as they boarded the plane, but surely in that case the commanding officer should have realized that he was asking for a precise standard in dress that Howells could not have prepared for without advance notice. But even if Howells had been given his polo in advance, and told about the requirement of no-shirt-underneath in advance, and for some reason could not obtain a scoop-neck garment so that his CO would never have even known he had his garments on beneath the shirt, the CO should still have been more sensitive to the guy's religious requirements. And on top of that, polo shirts have not only buttons, but buttonholes as well. You could, you know, button it up one more button. I know of no polo shirts that will not hide a crew neck when buttoned up.

Now, we don't have all the evidence here, but based on what we do have, I just don't think this rises to the standard of discrimination. It sounds to me like the CO didn't understand the requirements of the garment, and was kind of gruff and hasty (as people under pressure are wont to be); but he didn't actually kick the guy out for being Mormon, and THAT would have been discrimination.

* Really, what did you think "endowed member" meant? Well, why do you think Mormons have so many kids?? ;)