NEW LONDON, Conn. (CN) — Isaak Olson was nearing graduation from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in March 2014 when he was forced to disclose the secret he had kept for months.
In order to finalize his first duty assignment, the cadet studying mechanical engineering had to answer the question on a screening application: Did he have any dependents?
The cadet from Los Angeles County who was captain of the water polo team had known for more than a year. He had been there, in California, when his long-distance fiancée had given birth days before he returned to Connecticut to finish his final year at the academy.
Yes, he was a father.
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy that sits on the western bank of the Thames River in New London, Connecticut, prohibits its cadets from being parents, a policy allegedly adopted soon after the academy started accepting female cadets in 1976.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project challenged the policy in federal court Wednesday, filing a lawsuit on behalf of Olson that asks a judge to declare it unconstitutional.
“The current regulation against parenthood is arbitrary and capricious,” the complaint states. “It arbitrarily bans parenthood no matter the circumstance, without any individualized determination of a cadet’s continued fitness or suitability for service, and is not in accordance with the regulations of the rest of the military.”
About 37% of active-duty service members in the U.S. military have had children, according to the lawsuit. But bans on parenthood in effect at the U.S. military service academies – including the Coast Guard Academy – are based on assumptions that parenthood would be a distraction from military service, particularly for women, the ACLU claims.
Violating the policy can result in a cadet being disenrolled from the academy and on the hook for paying back the costs of their tuition, according to the complaint. The academy’s parenthood policy, it added, has pressured cadets and their partners into abortions.
In Olson’s case, days after the academy’s chain of command learned he was a father, he and his fiancée took steps to give up his parental rights.
In an affidavit, his fiancée absolved the cadet from parental rights and responsibilities while he studied at the academy. A lawyer filed a custody and visitation agreement in a family court in California saying the same.
In June 2014, Olson needed special permission from the Coast Guard to marry his fiancée. Because the Coast Guard had not issued a final disenrollment action, he was still considered a cadet.
Weeks later, the day the Coast Guard disenrolled Olson from its academy, he enlisted. After stints in southern California and Florida, Olson now is stationed Alaska where he works as an aviation maintenance technician.
The disenrollment, the complaint says, causes Olson to earn less and have less opportunities for advancement in the Coast Guard. He will be hampered by the lack of a degree, should he leave the service.
“For the rest of his career, Mr. Olson will be asked to explain why he was disenrolled from the Academy and why he did not obtain his degree,” the complaint states.
In August 2018, the Coast Guard Board for Correction of Military Records denied Olson’s request for to backpay and allowances after he argued the refusal by the academy to grant him a degree was not allowed by law.
The complaint appeals the board’s decision.
It also asks a federal judge in Connecticut to enjoin the secretary of Homeland Security, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy from enforcing the prohibition on parenthood for cadets.
In addition to the ACLU, attorneys from Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School helped bring the suit.
Linda Morris, ACLU Women’s Rights Project staff attorney, said based on conversations with past cadets, the policy has been in place at the academy for decades. While the attorneys don’t yet know how many cadets have been disenrolled because they were parents, they hope to learn that number through the litigation process.
In representing a father who had run afoul of a policy the complaint says was enacted based on old assumptions on women in the military, the attorneys are hoping to advance “gender justice more broadly,” Morris said.
The lawsuit echoes a strategy used by one of the co-founders of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project – one Ruth Bader Ginsburg – who had represented a man who had faced a tax code that discriminated based on sex.
“This case illustrates and it's important to recognize that any sort of prohibition that has a disproportionate impact on women also has a negative impact on men and people of all genders,” Morris said.
The Coast Guard Academy did not return a request for comment.
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