DoD Policy on Religious Observance Updated

U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung

U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung

The DoD recently updated their “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services” directive. The existing directive had been in place since 1988 and was well due for a refresh. Our military has always consisted of members of diverse religious backgrounds, but in an environment that stresses uniformity of appearance the outward expression of that diversity is often hidden.

Ironically enough, this story has made the rounds among mainstream news outlets mainly focusing on Muslims and Sikhs growing beards (and how it will somehow unravel the fabric of society). While the policy does address the wear of uniform items and growing beards, this is a broad policy that  includes things like Shabbat observance and dietary considerations.

The updated policy doesn’t propose any dramatic changes as much as it establishes a clearer and more uniform framework for religious observance in uniform.

Some specific changes worth mentioning are:

  • Granting individual commanders the ability to approve accommodations of religious practices that don’t require a specific waiver.
  • Mandating all requests that require a waiver go to the top of each service’s personnel chain for approval.

The two biggest changes are the addition of a clear intent for the program and a shift in philosophy of its purpose. Prior to the change, the directive was a bare bones document that mostly just acknowledged that making accommodations for religious observance exists. The new directive spends more words explaining the intent than were in the entire previous order. What the explicit intent boils down to is that the services should approve any and all accommodations that don’t interfere with mission accomplishment and good order and discipline.

The change in philosophy is more subtle, but my interpretation is that the requestor is now “innocent until proven guilty”. Now, it seems the burden of the approving authority is to prove that accommodation would have an adverse effect, not that the accommodation is warranted. While it doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems to imply a that there should be a greater approval rate.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it standardizes the policy throughout each service and the entire DoD. By doing so it encourages each service to be more deliberate about their own published policy and removes much of the mystery that surrounded the process in the past. This clarity and standardization potentially opens the door for observant Jews to serve and observe mitzvot with greater ease.

My response to the policy was included in a JNS article and I’ll highlight one part of it here:

Perhaps the most important thing about the update is that it shows the DoD recognition that religious observance is something that is important to our servicemembers and by making reasonable accommodations we can be a stronger and more effective force because of it.