Add some faith to the military uniform
A new military policy has gained the attention of online media in recent weeks to allow soldiers to incorporate religious clothing into their uniforms. This policy drew both criticism and praise from various groups, but could be seen as a positive step for those whose only obstacle to military service was an obligation to their religious teachings. The new policy, which was released by the Pentagon last week, changed long-standing uniform rules, which almost universally prohibited religious modifications to the uniform, to allow soldiers to request waivers on a case-by-case basis. These exemptions will allow soldiers to wear items of religious importance such as beards, turbans or kippahs as part of their uniform as long as these additions do not “negatively affect military readiness,” the accomplishment of the mission, the cohesion of the unit and good order and discipline. “
One of the religious groups that has been most positively affected by this policy change would be the Sikhs. Sikhism, a religion founded in India in the 15th century, has 25 million followers worldwide. Some Sikh teachings require practitioners to keep their hair (or beards) long and uncut, wear a turban and steel bracelet, and wear other religious items to live out their faith. As a result, despite the fact that many Sikhs might be interested in serving in the military, very few were actually able to practice their religious teachings – only three Sikh officers currently serving in the US military were allowed to follow the Sikh religion. lessons on hairdressing and clothing.
Religious leaders in the Sikh community have both praised the new policy for its openness and criticized it for its ultimate form, which still requires deviation on a case-by-case basis. Sikh Coalition spokesperson Amardeep Singh said The Huffington Post that although this was the first time the Pentagon had expressed its willingness to work with soldiers and make accommodations, the fact that it was ultimately a case-by-case decision was troubling. “What is disappointing [â¦] is that the alleged ban on Sikh articles of faith remains [â¦] A Sikh cannot simply enlist in the United States military and expect that he will not have to make the wrong choice between his faith and his service to the country.
On this point, Singh is absolutely right. The Supreme Court upheld the principle that the army’s authority to maintain discipline and order trumps the First Amendment rights of soldiers to freely exercise their religion while wearing religious clothing. The most notable Supreme Court decision on this issue is Goldman v. Weinberger, a 1986 case in which an Air Force officer, who was an ordained rabbi, was penalized by his superiors for wearing a kippah while on duty. The officer continued, claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated.
The Supreme Court, however, disagreed and ruled in favor of the military. In his majority opinion Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist stated in part that “the desirability of dress regulations in the military is decided by the appropriate military officials, and they have no constitutional mandate to abandon their judgment. professional. [â¦] the First Amendment does not oblige the military to adapt to such [religious] practices in the face of his opinion that they would undermine the uniformity sought by the dress regulations.
Because of Goldman decision, the military has absolutely no obligation to accommodate soldiers who wish to follow religious teachings on clothing or physical appearance while on duty. Contrary to the hard line won by the military in this case, this new policy suggests that the Pentagon now believes it can maintain military cohesion while allowing more fluid forms of religious expression. However, military leaders still retain the ultimate ability to decide when these accommodations may still undermine military discipline through their ability to issue or revoke waivers.
While this question may seem trivial to some, it is of great importance not only to those who genuinely wish to live out their religious teachings, but to society as a whole. America has gone through a period of significant adjustment over the past decade in the way religious groups participate in the public arena, and issues range from predictable topics like same-sex marriage and birth control to more unexpected topics, such as whether or not churches can legally feed the homeless in some cities across the country. While the trend lately has been to restrict or limit the role that religious groups can play, policy changes like these are an encouraging sign to the faithful that while some doors close, others have – within reason – started to open.
David Giffin is an alumnus of the Masters of Theological Studies program at the Candler School of Theology and currently attends Wake Forest University Law School. He is from Charleston, Illinois.
Illustration by Mariana Hernandez