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On The Front Lines

The Rutherford Institute Scores Victory in Congress on behalf on Lt. Col. Martha McSally, Decorated U.S. Fighter Pilot

Senate Votes 93-0 to Overturn U.S. Military Policy Requiring Servicewomen to Wear Muslim Garb

On June 24, 2002, the U.S. Senate voted 93-0 in favor of an amendment to prohibit the Department of Defense from requiring or even formally urging servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the Muslim abaya, a black head-to-toe robe worn in certain Muslim cultures and perceived as a sign of subordination to men. The amendment to the DoD Authorization Bill, S.A. 3969, which was sponsored by Senator Bob Smith (R-NH) and largely based on language drafted by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, followed on the heels of a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives in May 2002. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Mark Dayton (D-MN), Jack Reed (D-RI), Larry Craig (R-ID), Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) joined Smith in introducing the measure.

The Rutherford Institute brought the issue into the national spotlight when its attorneys filed suit in December 2001 on behalf of Lt. Col. Martha McSally, a decorated pilot with the U.S. Air Force, challenging a military policy requiring servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the abaya when off base. The suit, filed against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the U.S. Department of Defense, charged that the military's dress policy violates McSally's constitutional rights to equal protection and the freedoms of religion and speech. The Rutherford Institute, working in conjunction with McSally and leaders on Capitol Hill, sought to resolve the issue of the unconstitutional dress policy through judicial and legislative means. The final amendment passed by the Senate prevents any member of the Armed Forces or employee of the United States from requiring or encouraging that the abaya garment be worn and from retaliating against those who choose not to wear the abaya. The amendment also instructs the Secretary of Defense and those acting in his stead to provide each female member of the Armed Forces stationed in Saudi Arabia with information regarding the abaya prohibition. Finally, the amendment prohibits the use of federal funds for the procurement of abayas.

"The Senate vote is a great victory for freedom and the democratic process," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "And because of Martha McSally's courageous stand, it is also a victory for the rights of women in the armed services."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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Nisha N. Mohammed
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