(JNS.org) The Pentagon has agreed to allow U.S. troops greater freedom to grow beards or wear religious garments such as head scarfs, turbans, and yarmulkes with their military uniforms. The new policy will mostly affect Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and others with religious traditions pertaining to clothing and facial hair.
Men and women in the military, however, still must seek special approval from their commanders to wear religious garments, and the request 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," Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen said in a statement released by the U.S. Department of Defense.
"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.
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.
Jews in Green, an independent organization representing Jews serving across the Department of Defense that is not affiliated with the department itself, applauded the new policy.
"The new policy doesn't make any drastic changes, nor does it allow any items previously prohibited. However, it does clarify the process for granting religious accommodation, and potentially opens the door for observant Jews to serve and observe mitzvot with greater ease," Jason Rubin, a spokesman for Jews in Green, told JNS.org.
Rubin added that the policy also includes loosened regulations on religious observances such as Shabbat and dietary considerations.
"Perhaps the most important thing about the update is that it shows the DoD's recognition that religious observance is something that is important to our service members, and by making reasonable accommodations we can be a stronger and more effective force because of it," he said.