US Army to Grant Sikhs, Muslims, Jews Permanent Waivers

The US Army has changed its policies (PDF) to allow Sikhs, Muslims, and Jews to serve while wearing their religious accoutrements in uniform [emphasis added]:

Since 2009, religious accommodation requests requiring a waiver for uniform wear and grooming have largely fallen into one of three faith practices: the wear of a hijab; the wear of a beard; and the wear of a turban or under-turban/patka, with uncut beard and uncut hair. Based on the successful examples of Soldiers currently serving with these accommodations, I have determined that brigade-level commanders may approve requests for these accommodations…

Importantly, the policy specifically says the religious practice should be approved

regardless of whether the practice is compelled by, or central to, the religion concerned.

The initial approval level is at the much-lower Brigade level (as opposed to the Pentagon level). Notably, the Army directs its commanders to approve these requests for religious accommodation, though it permits the Army to assess the “sincerity” of the beliefs and allows an exception for safety [emphasis added]:

The…commander will approve a request…unless the commander:

(1) determines the request is not based on a sincerely held religious belief, or
(2) identifies a specific, concrete hazard…that cannot be mitigated by reasonable measures…

(Presumably, then, atheists won’t be able to request a religious exception to wear a beard in their military uniform.)

While approval is at a low level, if the commander believes the request should be denied, the request is elevated — and only the Secretary of the Army can authorize a denial. (For perspective, activists had hailed the decision to elevate discharge authority of homosexuals and transgenders to Service-secretary level as de facto approval, even before repeal.)

In a significant step, the accommodation request is permanent, as opposed to by-assignment as had been previously approved for some Sikhs:

The accommodation will continue throughout the Soldier’s career and may not be permanently revoked or modified unless authorized by [the Secretary of the Army].

That said, Sikh groups still plan to press the Department of Defense to change the underlying policy, rather than requiring them to seek an exception to the policy. (Importantly, this policy change is limited to the Army.)

While the wording is almost exclusively restricted to hair, hijabs, beards, and turbans, these policy changes are a significant victory for religious freedom.

As with the tone of the Air Force’s updated policies, which presume a need to accommodate religious belief, rather than requiring the adherent to justify his belief, the Army has assumed a Soldier is entitled to his religious practice, and the Army is the one that has to justify any restriction on such practice. The tone is so strong, in fact, that for these accommodations the third-in-command to the President of the United States is the only one who can deny such a request.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious civil liberties group that has been working on this issue for a long time, praised the move:

“An Army with Sikhs is an even stronger Army,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket [Fund]…

Douglas Carver, former retired Major General and Chief of Chaplains for the Army, is now an endorser for the Southern Baptist Convention — and he praised the new policy:

Faith is a major part of many service members’ lives… “You are prepared to go into harm’s way, even to die, and practice of your religious belief brings courage and calmness,” he said. “A soldier should not have to feel that he’s about to give his life for his country, but that he doesn’t want to compromise his individual faith or practices.”

The Army’s high-level and fairly unequivocal support for military religious freedom may also explain the response (or lack thereof) from Michael “Mikey” Weinstein and his awkwardly named “Military Religious Freedom Foundation.” Over the years Weinstein has been largely silent on the issue of Sikhs in the military, and despite his constant threats to sue the US military over religious freedom, he did not participate in the Sikh lawsuit against the Army. At best, despite the clear issue of military religious freedom, Weinstein has only rarely expressed tepid, and heavily qualified, support for Sikhs in the military (in contrast to his very vocal support of homosexuals).

The reason is almost certainly that everyone benefits from these policies — Christians included — and this policy change undermines some of the very methods Mikey Weinstein has used to attack Christians in the military. If Sikhs are allowed to express their religion so visibly — by wearing a beard and turban — how can Mikey Weinstein complain about an officer having a Bible on his desk or saying “I’m a Christian?”

Weinstein previously justified his accusations by implying US troops were sycophants and cowards: He and his supporters implied if troops knew their commander was a Christian, they would be “coerced” to be or act like Christians, either to ingratiate themselves or because they were afraid to be different.

Now, if a superior stands up and says nothing — but sports a beard, turban, or hijab — what can Weinstein say?

Weinstein will, again, likely remain largely silent on the issue of Sikhs. It is more likely a few militant atheists will complain it isn’t fair they’re not allowed to wear beards or do-rags in uniform. While some government offices have granted atheists “religious” exemptions — a spate of ridiculous headgear is de rigueur — the US military has not demonstrated such a whimsical attitude toward the clear constitutional protections of religious exercise.

Allowing Sikhs to serve in the US Army while continuing to exercise their religious faith is a significant step in the right direction, and outgoing Secretary Eric Fanning should be commended for it. It remains to be seen if this trend will continue — and the Army will uphold such a high standard of protection of religious exercise for everyone — and if it will spread to the rest of the US military services.

As reported at the Sikh CoalitionStars and Stripes, Religion Clause, The Hill, Army Times, FoxNews, and Baptist Joint Committee.