The Pentagon has relaxed its uniform policy to allow service members to grow beards and wear coverings such as turbans, yarmulkes and head scarves as expressions of their faith.
The change was announced earlier this week, and largely affects practicing Muslims and Sikhs — religions that require a person’s head be covered and men to grow beards.
“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 (conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs) of service members,” the amended policy states. “In so far as practicable, a service member’s expression of sincerely held beliefs … may not be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment.”
All requests are to be handled on a case-by-case basis, and “new requests for the same accommodation are necessary upon new assignment, transfer of duty stations, or other significant change in circumstances, including deployment.”
The change comes after years of implementation of a standing policy that had prohibited service members from growing facial hair or wearing head covering.
The military had expressed concerns that a turban would make it difficult to wear combat gear and a beard would prevent a gas mask from forming a protective seal with the wearer’s face.
In recent years, however, select cases have been won by service members lobbying for religious freedom while in uniform.
Between 2009 and 2010, three soldiers — Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Cpl. Simran Preet Singh Lamba — were allowed to serve while wearing turbans and beards in expression of their Sikh faith.
In 2011, Orthodox Rabbi Menachem Stern of Brooklyn, N.Y., successfully sued the Army for the right to wear a beard because shaving it would violate his faith.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, spokesman for the Pentagon’s personnel and readiness office, said the Defense Department does not know how many troops would be affected by the amended policy, but the hope is it “will enhance commanders’ and supervisors’ ability to promote the climate necessary to maintain good order and discipline, and would reduce both the instances and perception of discrimination among those whose religious expressions are less familiar to the command.”
Reaction to the change was split among religious-freedom advocates.
Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, applauded the decision and called it important “to broaden the religious rights of American military personnel, and [we] hope this updated policy will allow all those in uniform to practice their faith while serving the nation.”
The New York-based Sikh Coalition, which lobbied for the soldiers, said its members are “deeply appreciative” that the Pentagon had established a formal process. But the group’s policy director, Rajdeep Singh, said the regulations are disappointing.
“The resistance has been to turbans and beards, so basically we were looking for a framework so that a Sikh who wants to join the military has a pretty clear understanding of what needs to be done,” Mr. Singh said. “The problem with the new regulations … is that the accommodations are never guaranteed. They could be revoked at any time.”
The bigger problem, he said, is the requirement that service members requesting accommodation abide by the current uniform policy until their requests are granted.