US Military Publishes New Religious Freedom Guidance

A host of websites have reported the US Department of Defense has “relaxed” its rules regarding religious accommodation. More accurately, the military has updated its policies on requesting such accommodations in a manner that does seem to imply they will be more amenable to such requests.  Department of Defense Instruction 1300.17 (DoDI 1300.17) now has “Change 1”, which can be found here (PDF).

“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members,” [Pentagon spokesman Navy LtCmdr Nathan Christensen] said, “unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline.”

When a service member requests such an accommodation, he added, department officials balance the need of the service member against the need to accomplish the military mission. Such a request is denied only if an official determines that mission accomplishment needs outweigh the need of the service member, Christensen said.

The key word in the quote and the instruction itself — the DoD will accommodate.

These changes include an apparent allowance of religious facial hair and “body art,” as well as direct responses to the 2013 and 2014 National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA) requiring the US military to accommodate religious expression:

In accordance with section 533(a)(1) of Public Law 112-239…unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Military Departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs…of Service members in accordance with the policies and procedures in this instruction.

This does not preclude disciplinary or administrative action for conduct by a Service member requesting religious accommodation that is proscribed by Chapter 47 of Title 10, United States Code (the Uniform Code of Military Justice), including actions and speech that threaten good order and discipline.

The DoDI also picks up a variation of the relatively recent mantra (made somewhat famous by President Obama) that the government values troops’ rights to participate in any religion “or no religion at all,” becoming potentially the first DoD instruction to explicitly refer to atheists, agnostics, and apathetics.  A few atheists seemed to think it wasn’t a fair balance and were disappointed in the military’s attempt to protect religious freedom for everyone.

The official releases note this is a “case by case” decision, not a wholesale policy change on religious accommodation. It explicitly states that even approved accommodations have to be re-approved with every change in military station or status.

Importantly, troops are required to follow the policies to which they are asking an accommodation until such a request is approved:

Service members submitting requests for accommodation of religious practices will comply with the policy, practice, or duty from which they are requesting accommodation, including refraining from beginning unauthorized grooming and appearance practices, wearing unauthorized apparel, or applying unauthorized body art, unless and until the request is approved.

Of course, that presumes that a policy exists from which accommodation is required, or that some other exception to “normal” official conduct might be required.  For example, no policy explicitly bans troops from taking a break from work to pray five times a day.  Still, because one troop would potentially be treated differently than others, it is conceivable an accommodation request might be made in that case.

On the other hand, US military policy does not explicitly ban “individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs” when it comes to speech in a private capacity. So if a US troop participates in a Bible study and makes exclusive statements about the truth claims of his religious beliefs, he apparently won’t have to make a preemptive request for accommodation.

Further, despite some interpretations, this new DoD instruction seems to apply to serving US troops — not those who want to join. In other words, those who require accommodation to enlist may still need to get exceptions to accession policies before they can join the military.

For his part, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein — founder and head of his “religious freedom” MRFF — was apoplectic, claiming this new freedom would result in rampant discrimination by Christians, even if a other faiths would benefit:

[Weinstein] said the relatively small numbers of non-Christian practitioners who benefit from the new rules would be dwarfed by the number of Christians who use it as cover to try to impose their belief system.

DOD will find it harder to fight the spread of homophobia, anti-Islam sentiment, misogyny and anti-Semitism with the new policy, he predicted.

“Far from this being all about beards and turbans for Sikhs or yarmulke for Jewish personnel, I am concerned over a potential for a new tsunami of fundamentalist Christian oppression and tyranny from superiors to their subordinates,” Weinstein said.

Apparently, Mikey Weinstein thinks Christians are chomping at the bit to be anti-Semitic misogynists and are being held back only by military policies.  If there were any doubts about Weinstein’s attacks on Christian troops’ religious freedoms, he’s just removed them.

Chaplain Ron Crews, whose Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty advocated for these policy changes, was guardedly pleased:

“Our initial response is that we are grateful that DOD is taking seriously Section 533 that was passed in the FY13 NDAA,” he said. “And we’re wanting to make sure that military members are able to exercise their religious liberties without any fear of recrimination.”

As noted, the new DoDI 1300.17 appears to reflect portions of the 2013 NDAA and the 2014 NDAA. The latter was passed by Congress specifically because, in its opinion, the US military was protecting “belief,” not the expression of belief.  As the 2014 NDAA just recently passed, policymakers may have tweaked the language in the long-held up policy change to match the recent legislation.

Also at NBC News and the Associated Press.