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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

New Military Dress Codes for Religious Accommodations

The Pentagon recently released an update on the military dress code that eases the rules for waivers on religious grooming. 

The new change/update to the uniform policy states "...that beards, turbans, religious body art and other previously off-limits manifestations of spiritual devotion can now be allowed throughout the military."

Previously servicemembers occasionally obtained exemptions to policies for religious reasons but the new policy says accommodations will be approved unless the military demonstrates a compelling reason to deny.

I have mixed feelings about this. 

I absolutely have no objections to freedom of religious expression and I don't have anything against religions that strongly encourage/require certain religious dress codes. I have nothing against religious diversity.

But I do wonder where the line will be drawn with regards to how much accommodation will be allowed while in uniform.

On the one hand I don't see that wearing a turban or yarmulke will greatly impact the wearing of a military uniform - it is just something extra on the head.

But where does it stop? It will include "previously off-limits manifestations of spiritual devotion" - what  manifestations? What spiritual devotion? Who determines what is a spiritual devotion? Can anyone claim that anything is a spiritual devotion? And what religious body art? Will that body art have to follow the current guidelines of what is allowed for tattoos ... that they aren't supposed to be visible while in the uniform?

I admit to not understanding the requirements of religious dress codes and why certain items have to be worn all the time or throughout the day. Do these religions not allow for accommodations for your job? Do they not allow you to not wear the turban for 8 hours of your work day?

One of the arguments for allowing the accommodations is that it "...may result in the unnecessary exclusion of Sikh Americans and Americans of other religious faiths from military service based on their religious beliefs manifested in their dress and grooming.”

So members of certain faiths might be left out of volunteering for the armed services because it would conflict with their religious beliefs by adhering to the military dress code requirements. What about females of those other religions? I don't know if those religions even allow females to join the service, but I'm sure some of them do. And if they do how do they accommodate their religious dress codes? The dress codes for females seem to be much more cumbersome or involved. A lot of religions require the females to always wear dresses or skirts (and while there are skirts in the military dress blues, it isn't something that is worn every day - although I guess it could be - except when you're deployed you're wearing your desert uniform.) or very flowing and loose-fitting pants and shirts. While the military uniform isn't tight and revealing by any means I wouldn't consider it flowing and loose-fitting either. How would females be accommodated for their uniform?

I'm aware that the Civil Rights Act includes religious accommodations for dress codes for places of employment, but it also states that courts recognize "...There may be limited situations in which the need for uniformity of appearance is so important that modifying the dress code would pose an undue hardship. However, even in these situations, a case-by-case determination is advisable."

I wouldn't argue that modifying the military dress could would necessarily pose an undue hardship on the military service, but the military is about uniformity. When you start to allow too many alterations to the traditional dress code it isn't so uniform anymore.

There are concessions you make when you volunteer to join the service. You realize these concessions when you sign up. Men can't wear earrings, your hair can't touch your collar; so if you are female you either have to cut your hair short or wear it up every day, you can't have nose or lip piercings, you have to wear black sunglasses, you have to carry a black backpack, you can't dye your hair outlandish colors, I think there are even regulations on what color nail polish you can wear while in uniform. The list goes on and on. You learn these things when you decide to volunteer for the military. You decide if the dress code is a deal-breaker for your service commitment or not ... and if you don't want to adhere to the strict guidelines than you don't sign up.

I wonder how other uniformed public servants address the religious dress codes. Firefighters? Police officers? I honestly don't know what accommodations they make, but I am curious. I don't recall ever seeing a firefighter or police officer with anything additional on their uniform that would identify them as being of a certain religious faith.


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Anonymous said...

I live in Canada, and I am unsure of our military rules for dress. I do know, however, that cyclists are required by law to wear a helmet. And yet if a person wears a religious item on their head, they need'nt wear a helmet. I understand the issues regarding religious freedom, but I feel that safety is of the utmost importance, and so, in the name of safety, every single person should have to wear a helmet while cycling.

For our military, Sikhs wear military issued turbans, they are dark green with a red ribbon(I think) and look nice and they all match, but in actual war type situations, how do they protect their noggin'? Some Sikhs don't actually have long hair, they just perch a turban on top of their head(I know this from personal experience with Sikh friends) but some do use it for tying up their hair.

You made a good point about female dress. One family I know, they are part of a tabernacle religious group, I think that's a thing, and the women have to wear long skirts, and the family has four daughters and a couple sons. One of the girls has chosen not to live the lifestyle, and she cuts her hair(the religion prohibits that) and dyes it and wears pants. but the other girls follow these guidelines, but the family has made the decision to allow the girls to wear pants/shorts, whatever is appropriate for that activity, so like you said, I imagine that many religions would have sort of exceptions for sports, and especially something as noble as serving your country.

I feel like there will be some sort of outrageous outcry from racist people "If our troops wear turbans, how will we know who the terrorists are?!"

Kerri Ames said...

When I saw this on FB I thought it was a joke and didn't trust it. But it just doesn't make sense. You illustrate why so eloquently so I won't rehash your post. But I can tell you from a fire fighter's wife perspective when they wear their gear you cannot tell a male from a female. That is a uniform and how it should be. But that's just me :)