April 25, 2014

Kaine Calls On Dod To Grant Religious Accommodations To Sikhs Serving In The Military

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Tim Kaine led 14 of his colleagues in sending a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel calling on the Department of Defense to modify its regulations on appearance so that patriotic Sikh Americans can serve in the U.S. Armed Forces while abiding by their articles of faith.

“Despite their achievements, Section 4(g) of the revised Instruction would require religiously observant service members to remove their head coverings, cut their hair, or shave their beards—in violation of their religious obligations—while an accommodation request is pending, even if they are capable of meeting safety requirements,” the Senators wrote. “We believe that a service member’s religion should not be a barrier to serving in our nation’s armed services.  Accordingly, we hope that Instruction 1300.17 can be further amended so that talented Americans of faith are given a fair opportunity to serve in our nation’s military.” 

In 1990, Congressman Dennis Hastert (R-IL) proposed legislation that would have allowed Sikhs to serve in our nation’s military.  Since 2009, bipartisan members of Congress have written to the Department of Defense, requesting inclusion of devout Sikh servicemembers in the U.S. military.  While in recent years the U.S. Army decided to grant individualized accommodations to three Sikh Americans, who wear turbans and maintain unshorn hair, including beards, barriers still exist. Kaine and colleagues are calling for further amendment to the Department of Defense policy, that would allow servicemembers to wear religious apparel that is neat, conservative and does not interfere with military duties.

Full text of the letter is below:

Dear Secretary Hagel,

We respectfully request that the Department of Defense refine its January 22, 2014, revisions to Instruction 1300.17 (Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services) so that religiously observant individuals are not presumptively prohibited from serving in our military. 

As you know, 10 USC § 774 was enacted during the Reagan Administration and permits service members to wear neat and conservative religious apparel, such as a yarmulke, as long as it does not interfere with the performance of their military duties.  In recent years, the U.S. Army has granted individualized waivers to three Sikhs to wear turbans and maintain unshorn hair and beards. Each of them successfully completed basic training and complied with safety requirements relating to helmets and protective masks.  Two of these soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star Medal and Army Commendation Medal for their service; another was recently promoted to the rank of Corporal.  In recent years, the U.S. Army has also granted waivers to a Jewish Rabbi and two Muslim doctors to maintain beards.

Despite their achievements, Section 4(g) of the revised Instruction would require religiously observant service members to remove their head coverings, cut their hair, or shave their beards—in violation of their religious obligations—while an accommodation request is pending, even if they are capable of meeting safety requirements.  Section 4(j) of the revised Instruction would require each of these soldiers to submit to a new accommodation request each time they are assigned to a new base or duty station.  These seem inconsistent with the intent of section 774, which creates the presumptive entitlement to wear religious apparel that is neat and conservative and which does not interfere with military duties.

We believe that a service member’s religion should not be a barrier to serving in our nation’s armed services.  Accordingly, we hope that Instruction 1300.17 can be further amended so that talented Americans of faith are given a fair opportunity to serve in our nation’s military. 

We appreciate your attention and look forward to working closely with you on this matter. Thank you for your time and consideration.

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