Update: Responses to DoD Changes on Religion Rules

Update: J.B. Wells wonders aloud if the DoD intentionally produced the policy to change the religious freedom focus to turbans and beards while keeping “liberal constituencies” like Michael Weinstein “at bay.”

There have been a wide variety of responses to the US military’s update to DODI 1300.17 (accommodating religious freedom), with language that seems to imply a more open attitude toward outward display and expression of religious belief.

The Christian Post, like many sites, focused on the apparent ability to wear religious accoutrements:

The Pentagon reportedly decided to change its policy on religious wear after Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a Sikh, spoke at a Congressional briefing about the challenges American Sikhs face in the military earlier in January. Kalsi told members of Congress that he believes he can effectively serve his country while still maintaining his religious appearance, including an uncut beard and a turban.

While that may or may not have been a factor, the DoDI clearly includes language from both the 2013 and 2014 National Defense Authorization Acts — that is, requirements levied by Congress, not just reconsideration based on serving Soldiers.

The US Navy appeared to try to quell some misconceptions, with an official release noting much of the policy is “just as before,” but the DoDI is actually more restrictive in some areas than prior Navy policy:

One change to take note of has to do with requests for accommodations that involve wearing an item of religious apparel or grooming and appearance practices, such as a beard or piercing, for religious reasons. Local commanders may no longer make that decision. Any request that requires a waiver to our Navy uniform or grooming regulations must be submitted to the Secretary of the Navy.

The Liberty Institute called the policy change a “victory” for the “religious speech and practices of servicemembers.”

“Senior Master Sergeant Monk and others who took an oath to fight for the Constitution stood up and now, DOD is amending its policy to be consistent with the Constitution and federal law,” said Michael Berry, Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs for Liberty Institute. “The best part of this new policy is that DOD must prove that a restriction on religious speech or action is the least restrictive of all other options in order to justify its actions.”

That is one of the more optimistic readings of the policy updates.

Jason Rubin at Jews in Green similarly found the policy was less a dramatic change and more a positive alteration of philosophy [emphasis original]:

The change in philosophy is more subtle, but my interpretation is that the requestor is now “innocent until proven guilty”. Now, it seems the burden of the approving authority is to prove that accommodation would have an adverse effect, not that the accommodation is warranted.

In other words, Rubin is saying the military would have to prove an accommodation was actually bad in order to disapprove it, while in the past a servicemember may have had to prove it was necessary to accommodate his request.

Others have been more “cautious” in their praise of the DoD policy, with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty calling it a “belated step in the right direction.”  (Thus far, the Becket Fund appears to be the only organization highlighting the fact Congress passed laws requiring these kinds of changes more than a year ago.)

Under its new regulations, the military is now more respectful of diverse religious viewpoints. It is also signaling a new willingness to accommodate the attire requirements of religious minority groups…Further, the military expressly imported the gold standard for religious liberty protection–the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act…

But there are problems. Most glaring, the regulations redefine RFRA’s shield for religious exercise in a way that forces government officials to make theological judgments about which religious beliefs deserve respect…

Howard Friedman at the Religion Clause similarly tempered the excitement by noting the “elaborate criteria” set up in the DoDI for determination of accommodation.  Also, while the DoDI notes the military requires a “compelling interest” to restrict religious expression, Friedman notes the DoDI gave the military a very broad definition of “compelling interest:”

DoD has a compelling government interest in … elements of mission accomplishment such as military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health, and safety, on both the individual and unit levels. An essential part of unit cohesion is establishing and maintaining uniform military grooming and appearance standards.

It would seem requests can be explicitly denied in the interest of a “compelling governmental interest” — which may be broadly defined as just about anything the military determines it to be.

CAIR called on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — a US government body — to “investigate” its vice-chair, Zuhdi Jasser, who appeared on FoxNews and seemed concerned that these new rules were “political correctness” in the face of Islam, specifically citing the fact former US Army Maj Nidal Malik Hasan was the first Muslim to get just such an exception for his beard. (The fact that Jasser specifically called out CAIR probably had something to do with their complaint.)

While Sikh sites had initially responded positively, the Sikh Coalition realized what was noted here previously — the updates to DODI 1300.17 did nothing to accession policies.

“If a Sikh wants to join the military under the new rules, there is no guarantee that he will be granted a religious accommodation,” he said.  “Even if an accommodation is granted, it can be revoked at any time under the new rules if you’re transferred to a new duty station or base.”

Former US Rep and retired US Army LtCol Allen West derided the policy changes as further “social engineering” in the US military — but his reasoning is interesting, as he cites Michael “Mikey” Weinstein as a counterexample:

[The policy change] is a horrible idea. It’s part of the fundamental transformation of the United States of America and the social reengineering of our military.

Let me give you an interesting hypocrisy. Just during this last Christmas season, we had a gentleman by the name of Mikey Weinstein that brought a complaint about the dining facility at Guantanamo Bay because they had a nativity scene and he wanted that nativity scene to be taken down

Now we’re saying everyone else can have their open expression of their religion, when here is a guy that does not want us to say “under God” as part of the Honor Code Oath of the United States Air Force Academy.

We could have seen this coming when the ruling during the Nadal Hasan case was that he would be allowed to keep his beard. This is a breakdown of the good order and discipline. I don’t understand why the administration would take this on. But I believe Chairman Joe Wilson, who is head of the subcommittee in the House on military personnel, should immediately call a hearing and start challenging this administration by making these unilateral decisions that’s going to affect the military and its personnel. Eventually, it will affect its readiness. It’s going to cause more complaints, more issues.

West seems to imply that the policy change isn’t an “honest” improvement on the part of the military because it so recently took actions that, in his mind, contravened that very philosophy.  It’s an interesting example.  Did someone at Guantanamo have to request “accommodation”?

Retired US Army Colonel and Chaplain Ron Crews of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty specifically tied the policy change to recent controversies:

“We continue to hear stories from the field of military personnel being told they cannot express their views on marriage unless those views support same-sex relationships,” said Crews.

“We are hopeful that these new guidelines will protect these service members as well. No American, especially those who wear our nation’s military uniforms, should be denied their God-given, constitutionally protected religious liberties.”

Similarly, retired LtGen Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council tempered praise for the changes with caution about how the US military actually implements the policy it has written:

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Jerry Boykin, executive vice-president of the Family Research Council (FRC), said in a statement released Thursday that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the new policy.

“The DOD policy recognizes that the intent of Congress in both the FY 2013 and FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Acts was to protect service members’ freedom to practice and express their faith,” said Boykin.

“The key thing will be implementation: Does the Pentagon understand that religious liberty is our core freedom and that curtailing its expression in the military is not only unconstitutional but also deeply harmful to morale and unit cohesion?”

Interesting that some of the more experienced voices on military religious freedom seem to think how the military implements the policy is more important than what people think based on what the policy says.