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
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
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,”
“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
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
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.