WASHINGTON — The Defense Department released a new instruction Jan. 22 that details its updated policy on making religious accommodations requested by service members, Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen said.
A DOD instruction implements a policy or prescribes the manner or plan of action used to carry out a policy, operate a program or activity, and assign responsibilities.
“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members,” Christensen said, “unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline.”
When a service member requests such an accommodation, he added, department officials balance the need of the service member against the need to accomplish the military mission. Such a request is denied only if an official determines that mission accomplishment needs outweigh the need of the service member, Christensen said.
Requests to accommodate religious practices will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, the spokesman noted.
“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,” he added.
Immediate commanders may resolve religious accommodation requests that don’t require a waiver of military department or service policies that address wearing of military uniforms and religious apparel, grooming, appearance or body-art standards.
Accommodation requests that require a waiver will be forwarded to the respective military department for determination.
Christensen said that factors used to determine if religious apparel interferes with military duties include whether the item:
• Impairs the safe and effective operation of weapons, military equipment or machinery;
• Poses a health or safety hazard to the service member wearing the religious apparel;
• Interferes with the wear or function of special or protective clothing or equipment such as helmets, flak jackets, flight suits, camouflaged uniforms, protective masks, wet suits, and crash and rescue equipment; or
• Otherwise impairs the accomplishment of the military mission.
The spokesman said department officials believe the new instruction will enhance commanders’ and supervisors’ ability to promote the climate needed to maintain good order and discipline, and will reduce the instances and perception of discrimination toward those whose religious expressions are less familiar to the command.
“The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and the rights of others to their own religious beliefs,” Christensen said, “including the right to hold no beliefs.”