WASHINGTON — House legislators confronted Defense Department officials and chaplains in a heavily attended hearing Wednesday with the question of whether a new DOD policy to ensure religious freedom really does what it’s supposed to do.
The policy announced last week says servicemembers can follow, among other things, their religions’ grooming standards based on “sincerely held beliefs” if the exceptions don’t harm unit readiness or cohesion — but one member of the House Armed Services Committee personnel subcommittee asked if the directive goes far enough.
Sikh groups and several Sikh members of the armed forces are worried that the policy’s requirement to seek waivers from top service branch officials in order to wear the religion’s mandatory beards and turbans effectively bars them from the military, said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.
Meanwhile, a number of other Republican legislators expressed concern that DOD’s policy on religious freedom, which comes on the heels of major reversals on divisive issues such as gays in the military and same-sex marriage, might not protect the religious rights of Christian believers.
About 10 turbaned Sikhs were in the hearing room Wednesday, and more who could not be seated in the packed hearing room waited in the hallway.
Might Sikhs joining the military be forced to adopt regulation grooming in boot camp while they await a waiver, or seek new waivers every time they are reassigned, Heck asked?
Virginia “Vee” Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, said it would be up to services, which have not yet released their companion policies to the DOD instruction.
“We’ve delegated that to the services, and the reason behind that is the service is in the best position to determine their readiness needs, to determine unit cohesion, safety and health of not only the individual, but the unit,” she said. “The service has a responsibility though to look at the request of the individual, and it has to be a compelling governmental interest” before denying a waiver request.
But among other things, Sikhs fear that such waiver requests might take so long to be decided that they would be required to adopt regulation standards in the meantime.
Sikhs are a deeply patriotic group and want to serve in the military while staying true to their faith, said Army Maj. Kamal S. Singh, a military doctor who attended the hearing. He’s one of three Sikhs who previously had won exemptions to military grooming policies.
“I’m not a lobbyist, I’m just a soldier,” he said. “I’m proof of concept that a Sikh can wear a helmet, can wear a gas mask and get a seal … that we can do everything that is needed by any soldier, with our articles of faith intact.”
Accommodation for minority religions was not the main concern of the primarily Republican House members present Wednesday, however. Many of their questions centered around allegations that free expression of faith by Christian believers was being suppressed.
Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., raised a question about an alleged instance at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, of a DOD equal opportunity officer telling soldiers they had to use the term “holidays” instead of “Christmas” to avoid offending members of non-Christian religions.
Instances of Christians being told to be careful how they express their religions are frequent, he said.
“We get the same answer we continually get, and that is, ‘This is an isolated incident, it will not happen again,’” Nunnelee said.
On the whole, chaplains and servicemembers at large seem to believe they are able to freely practice their faiths, the officials said.
Penrod and top chaplains from the departments of the Navy, Army and Air Force said they were aware neither of current reports of chaplains being warned not to freely share their religions, nor of troops reporting instances of improper proselytizing.
The military is absorbing a number of new policies, including recognition of same-sex marriage, and while some may fear a wave of enforced political correctness, that hasn’t been the case, Penrod said.
“To my knowledge, we’ve not had instances where we could pinpoint a specific chaplain that has complained or provided evidence that they have been forced to provide a sermon or attend a ceremony or oversee a ceremony that went against the dictates of their particular religion,” she said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Carlos Bongioanni contributed to this report.