By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org –
The Pentagon has issued a directive that loosens restrictions for U.S. troops who wish to wear religious garments such as head scarves, turbans, and yarmulkes with their military uniforms, or to grow beards. But while the U.S. Department of Defense’s new policy should in some cases benefit Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other faiths, men and women in the military must still seek special accommodation from their commanders to be allowed to wear religious garments, and such requests can still be denied.
“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
“All requests for accommodation of religious practices will be assessed on a case-by-case basis… 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 said.
Prominent constitutional law attorney Nathan Lewin told JNS.org in an email that despite the loosening of the restrictions, the requirement for soldiers to seek permission from their military departments for religious clothing and beards, or the existence of “any requirement of prior approval,” violates religious apparel statute 10 USC 774. Passed by Congress in 1996, the statute allows members of the armed forces to “wear an item of religious apparel while wearing the uniform of the member’s armed force.”
According to Col. (ret.) Rabbi Sanford Dresin, director of military programs for the Aleph Institute and Aleph’s ecclesiastical endorser to the Department of Defense, the loosening of these restrictions is a “terrific thing,” but it remains to be seen how the changes will be implemented.
The Aleph Institute is one of three endorsing agencies for Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military. The Department of Defense “provides instructions, but the details are left to the individual departments,” such as the Navy or the Marines, Dresin told JNS.org.
Dresin explained that these military departments “have a certain degree of autonomy,” and that he hopes they “will not set any obstacles” for individuals who apply for permission to wear religious garments.
The Department of Defense decision conjures echoes of the case of Rabbi Menachem Stern, who was sworn in as a U.S. army chaplain in December 2011 following the resolution of his lawsuit against the army. The army had refused to budge for Stern on its “no-beard” …read more