Military Uniforms and High School Graduations

A reader e-mailed me about this story:

The family of a future Marine from New Hampshire is upset that his high school will not allow him to wear his uniform to graduation.

Brandon Garabrant will earn the title of [United] States Marine Friday after boot camp graduation. He will receive his diploma at ConVal Regional High School the following day. He’s able to do this because he had enough credits to graduate early.

Garabrant wants to wear his military uniform at his high school graduation, but the school’s principal says he must wear the cap and gown like everyone else, a move that has surprised some students….

Principal Brian Pickering didn’t make the decision alone. His graduation committee consists of a military wife, a military mother, a retired Army Special Forces member, and a retired Marine….

The committee tells FOX 25 high school graduation is for the students and just like the military, they want uniformity from those graduating. They say Brandon is welcome to wear his uniform under his gown and take the gown off once he gets his diploma.

I’m inclined to think that the school is right here. First, the purpose of a graduation is to mark the departure from school, not to indicate what one will be doing after school. Some might go to the military, some might go to college, some might become baseball players. But the point of the cap and gown is to focus on what all the graduates have accomplished, not on what some might be doing next.

Second, and more important, allowing one person to have distinctive dress draws undue attention to that person, at the expense of the others whom he will overshadow. The uniform cap and gown highlights the uniform accomplishment that is being honored at this event. There will be plenty of time to honor the Marine’s future individual accomplishments.

None of this, of course, in any way diminishes the importance of military service, or the courage that it requires. It’s just that this facet of Mr. Garabrant’s life ought to be celebrated on another occasion; this occasion is for celebrating a different facet of his life and his fellow graduates’ lives.

Some readers might think about what the rule ought to be when it comes to religious accommodations. I’m inclined to say that this matter is different for two reasons. First, religious accommodations are generally given in response to what people sincerely feel is their religious obligation, or at least what they feel strongly religiously encouraged to do. The sense is that we shouldn’t require people to violate their felt duty to God in order to enjoy their graduation ceremony. While Mr. Garabrant is naturally proud of being a Marine, I doubt that he feels a similarly strong sense of obligation to wear the military uniform everywhere.

Second, most religious accommodations tend to involve less obtrusive and distracting items than an entire uniform. Naturally students will not be entirely uniform — they’ll have individual faces, individual hairstyles, often minor bits of individual jewelry (such as earrings). A headscarf worn under the cap may be more noticeable, but not by a great deal; a turban worn instead of the cap may be still more noticeable, but still not as much as a full-on uniform. Now in theory there might be some requests for more obtrusive religious accommodations, such as someone asking to wear a nun’s habit or a saffron monk’s robe; but it’s not clear to me that such accommodation requests should be granted, and if they are granted, that should only be for the first reason given above (the sense that the people feel a religious obligation to wear the garments). In any event, these theoretical obtrusive accommodations aren’t what we generally think of when we envision the typical religious accommodation for headgear or jewelry. And a military uniform will stand out among the graduates considerably more than a headscarf would.

Incidentally, the military itself recognizes the importance of how obtrusive a religious deviation from the uniform rules would be — its rule as to accommodations of religious headgear and the like is that “items of religious apparel” are allowed if they are “discreet, tidy, and not dissonant or showy in style, size, design, brightness, or color.”