The Pentagon has eased rules that have made it difficult for some service members to wear religious clothing or beards required by their faith. Until now each military service had its own rules for how to make religious accommodations for their service members.
A new policy asks the services to make every effort to accommodate waiver requests to wear religious garb as long as it does not conflict with unit cohesion, safety or the ability to wear protective wear in a combat mission.
In recent years there have been cases where a small number of Sikhs have successfully received waivers from the Army to wear turbans and uncut hair while in uniform.
The new rules will make it possible for Sikhs and members of other faiths to receive such waivers routinely, when possible. Orthodox Jewish service members will be allowed to wear yarmulkes while in uniform, and Muslim service members could wear beards and carry prayer beads.
Every request will be handled on a case-by-case basis and any approval would depend on a service member's assignment at the time. Service members will have to reapply for a waiver for every new assignment.
For example, a service member granted a waiver while serving a staff tour at the Pentagon may not receive one while serving a combat zone. Defense officials suggested that a Sikh service member allowed a religious accommodation stateside might not be allowed one in a combat area where a turban or unshorn hair could interfere with the wearing of a helmet or gas mask.
However, a representative of The Sikh Coalition, which has advocated for Sikhs to wear articles of their faith in the military, suggested that is not the case. Rajdeep Singh notes that two Sikh soldiers were allowed to deploy to Afghanistan while maintaining their turbans and beards.
In a statement, The Sikh Coalition said it was "deeply appreciative" of the Pentagon's new policy but also "disappointed" that it did not do away with what it sees as "a presumptive ban on Sikh articles of faith."
The group noted that while the new policy provides a framework for religious accommodation, Sikh Americans will still have to go "through a lengthy and uncertain administrative process before being approved or denied the opportunity to serve their country with their religiously-mandated turbans and beards."
The new policy will allow service members to ask for exemptions from their immediate commanders who can allow some requests but might have to refer others to higher headquarters. That's because there are still policies regulating uniform appearance or combat service that will take precedence over the new policy.
For the first time the policy also provides protection of the rights of non-believers. A Pentagon spokesman says the Defense Department "places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs."