New rules from the Pentagon seek to broaden religious attire protections for members of the armed services, though some critics say that the policy does not go far enough.
“Under its new regulations, the military is now more respectful of diverse religious viewpoints,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a Jan. 24 statement.
However, the new regulations are problematic, Blomberg said, because they redefine religious freedom laws “in a way that forces government officials to make theological judgments about which religious beliefs deserve respect.”
On Jan. 22, the Department of Defense announced a new policy to accommodate the religious attire requirements of service members, including clothing, hair styles and body art while in uniform.
Individuals are invited to apply, on a case-by-case basis, for an exemption from military dress standards that are in conflict with their religious beliefs.
Requests may be rejected if the religious attire practices of the service member “have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline,” explained Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen, in a statement.
“Each request must be considered based on its unique facts, the nature of the requested religious accommodation, the effect of approval or denial on the service member's exercise of religion, and the effect of approval or denial on mission accomplishment, including unit cohesion,” Christensen added.
“The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions,” he said.
The new policy could benefit adherents of Sikhism, Islam, Judaism and other traditions that require believers to observe certain grooming and dress standards.
Blomberg described the Jan. 22 announcement as a “tardy but welcome step in the right direction.”
While the updated policy is “a good start” towards respecting religious freedom in the armed services, he suggested, the military should do more to protect religious liberty among its ranks.
“The members of our nation’s military give their lives to protect our liberties,” he stressed.
The new regulations, Blomberg said, will open military service to groups who were, in the past, “all but barred from access to military service,” such as the Sikhs, whose religious beliefs forbid adherents from cutting their hair – a practice in conflict with the military’s grooming standards.
However, the new rules still place the government as the arbiter of theological and religious matters, he noted, adding that “the military will both harm our service members and invite litigation until it corrects this error.”
He also argued that the new rules “aren’t accommodating enough” because they require “religious minorities to violate their beliefs before they can obtain protection for those beliefs,” barring many persons of faith from the armed services.
“We can, and should, do better than that,” Blomberg stated.