Balancing the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religious belief and practice with the military’s mission has long created headaches for American commanders.
During the Civil War, Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a devout Christian, found Sunday battles troubling. As the U.S. has grown more religiously diverse, such issues have gained complexity.
Should military members be allowed to wear yarmulkes or turbans if they are Jewish or Sikh? What about head coverings for women belonging to some Muslim or Christian sects?
Some faiths encourage facial hair, body art or carrying prayer beads in ways that don’t comply with military standards.
Several major religions have specific prayer times, holy days of obligation, dedicated days of rest or months of daytime fasting. Less common but no less constitutionally protected faiths may have other rules for dress, grooming, diet, worship, ritual or personal ethics.
Must the military accommodate each of those, and how far must that go?
Commanders have mostly found their way wisely, respecting rights without compromising the mission. But consistency has been lacking, which has sometimes led to tensions.
The Pentagon last week took a big step toward fairness and clarity.
“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, “unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline.”
The policy favors accommodation whenever possible. Denials require clear evidence of an adverse impact. Jackson saw that in his day when he set aside his qualms and fought on the Christian Sabbath. A military force wouldn’t be of much use if troops were excused from combat on predictable dates.
Some requests would never make sense. Religious pacifists shouldn’t get a waiver from combat, for instance; they just shouldn’t enlist in a professional military.
In difficult-to-determine situations, the decision on a waiver will now fall to a senior officer, such as a three-star general. Unit commanders can make less complex authorizations to grant requests.
Our armed forces exist to safeguard our liberties, including free exercise of religion. While troops’ own rights are constrained as a condition of service, limits should be drawn in the least restrictive way without harming military effectiveness.