Religious rights advocates are scrutinizing a Pentagon directive that allows service members not only to wear beards and turbans as expressions of their faith, but also gives chaplains the right to refuse practices that violate their beliefs, such as performing same-sex marriages.
Chaplains always have reserved the right to refuse services counter to their faith, but the directive issued last week clarifies the rule as the Defense Department moves forward in implementing policies for same-sex troops, legal analysts said.
“The military’s instruction is a clarification that will no doubt be useful for training and educating people,” said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University.
The new guidance states that “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.”
After the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act last year, “a number of faith organizations were concerned with chaplains being forced to perform services that could be contrary [to their faith],” said Lyman Smith, deputy executive director of the Military Chaplains Association.
“It comes down to the fact that the government is powerless to order chaplains to perform religious duties. The government has no interest in religion due to the constitutional [limitations] upon them,” said Mr. Smith, a retired Navy chaplain.
The instruction states that all requests for religious accommodations 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.”
“Overall, we’re very optimistic with caution,” said Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness. “If you really look at it, the accommodation is there to protect religious liberty. Religious expression, counseling and ministry are very, very important, and can and should be accommodated in the armed forces.”
The issue received an airing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday when members of a House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel issues closely questioned Pentagon officials over reports that military chaplains were facing bias and restrictions for their beliefs on issues such as same-sex marriage. Some social conservative groups in recent years have tracked what they say is pressure on military chaplains to perform duties that violate their beliefs or forced to follow procedures that contradict their faith traditions.
Top civilian and religious officials in the Pentagon said they were unaware of any discrimination against traditional religious beliefs and practices, and that such discrimination would be banned even under the updated codes of conduct.
“There’s a real disconnect if things are being said to members of Congress that are not getting to the chiefs of chaplains,” Bishop James B. Magness of the Episcopal Church’s armed services office testified Wednesday, according to the Religious News Service. “I don’t have a reason for why.”
The Pentagon directive does open the door wider for service members and would-be recruits to express their faith, especially those who practice religions that require a person’s head be covered and men to grow beards.
The military for years prohibited troops from growing facial hair or wearing head coverings over 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.
In 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.