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Religious exemptions for troops easier to request under new rules

Jan. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
U.S. Air Force Chaplaincy
An Air Force rabbi leads an evening service. The Pentagon announced new rules that make it easier for troops to request religious exemptions from uniform rules, grooming standards and other military policies (Lance Cheung / Air Force)
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The Pentagon on Wednesday announced new rules that make it easier for troops to request religious exemptions from uniform rules, grooming standards and other military policies.

The new rules aim to address a spate of controversies in recent years from religious troops seeking special treatment; for example, an Army Sikh wanted to wear a turban with his uniform and a rabbi wanted to wear a beard.

Until now, the Pentagon had no force-wide rules for how to handle requests for religious accommodation, making it unclear who should ultimately make those decisions and what force-wide standards to impose.

From now on, troops’ requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis and be denied only “if it is determined that the needs of mission accomplishment outweigh the needs of the Service member,” according to the new policy.

“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 policy states.

Requests that run counter to current service policy will require approval from the service’s three-star personnel chief. Requests that do not violate any particular policy will be handled by unit commanders.

Troops will have to reapply for exemptions every time they deploy or change jobs.

The new policy cites the example of a Jewish service member who may want to wear a yarmulke whenever a military cap is not permitted.

Some military commanders have expressed concern that exemptions from uniform or grooming standards will erode unit cohesion and morale. Those who look different might be treated differently by their peers, or troops may feel that the religious troops are getting special consideration.

The policy aims to address that by noting that “it is particularly important to consider the effect on unit cohesion.”

Critics also say religious apparel might create tactical problems for using military equipment. For example, a large turban might not allow a helmet or gas mask to function properly.

The Pentagon’s new policy was driven in part by pressure from Congress, advocacy groups and at least one lawsuit from a service member seeking an exemption.

Troops should expect an official response to a request within 30 days when stationed at home and 60 days when overseas, according to the policy.

In addition to grooming and uniform standards, troops can request special accommodation for:

■ Worship practices or special observances

■ Rations that comply with religious dietary restrictions

■ Waivers for some medical requirements

Requests will be denied if they:

■ Interfere with the safe operation of military weapons or equipment

■ Interfere with the proper use of safety or protective gear

■ Jeopardize the public health or safety of the unit

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