Army Challenged to Accommodate Religion

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Apr 23, 2009
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When Renee Yuengling’s grandmother served in the United States Army and was asked to declare her religion so it could be engraved on her dog tags, she said she was a Unitarian, rather than refuse to comply with the request because she was an atheist.

But members of today’s armed forces are more inclined to declare their religion and request accommodations they need in order to practice their religion while they serve.

And the Army is responding.

“The Army has an excellent policy on religious accommodation; they are quite clear they need to accept different religions,” says Yuengling, a Ph.D., and senior fellow at ICF International, who advises the Army on diversity issues.

“The real issue for the Army is being able to put their very good policy on religious accommodation into practice,” Yuengling told SHRM Online. She said that policy implementation requires decision-makers to be “culturally adaptive” and to find creative solutions that will allow people to serve.

However, despite an increasing awareness that the Army needs to respect the religious pluralism that exists in the United States, she says Army policies tend to be worded with the presumption that service members are Christian. “You don’t have to ask to get Sundays off, for example, but taking other days of the week off for worship requires an accommodation,” Yuengling says.

Such a slant toward Christianity is not entirely surprising in a country dominated by Christians. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) published in March 2009 found that 76 percent of American adults identified as Christians in 2008, down from 86 percent in 1990.

Making Room for All Beliefs

Divergent religious views can create conflicts in any workplace, particularly when some don’t accept the right of others to have different beliefs.

But, unlike in many other workplaces, religion can take on greater meaning for service personnel. “Religion becomes very important to some people in the military because they are dealing first hand with life and death,” Yuengling says.

And for some, this environment provides an ideal opportunity to share their faith.

According to a2005 report by National Public Radio (NPR), “Evangelicals are playing an increasing role in the military. Department of Defense statistics show that 40 percent of active duty personnel are evangelical Christians. Sixty percent of taxpayer-funded military chaplains are evangelical.”

One such chaplain, David Dice, an evangelical Protestant who was interviewed by PBS’ Newshour for a program that aired Sept. 11, 2008, said, “I live out my ministry and what that is as an evangelical, and the Army gives me a freedom to do that. As a soldier comes to me asking questions, that's when I find full freedom to really share what my personal belief is in God's word and in that truth that I hold to personally.”

The dominance of evangelical chaplains might make it harder for those with different beliefs to feel safe in expressing their point of view.

Taking a Stand

Two military recruits of the Sikh faith have decided to take a stand and challenge the Army. The men have been told that they must remove their turbans and cut their unshorn hair and beards—all mandatory articles of the Sikh faith—when they report for active duty in July 2009.

According to the web site of the Sikh Coalition, a national civil rights organization, Sikhs wear an external uniform to unify and bind them to the beliefs of the religion. This uniform includes the Kesh (uncut hair), which is kept covered by a distinctive turban, the Kirpan (a religious sword), Kara (a metal bracelet), Kanga (a hair comb) and Kaccha (undershorts). Each article of faith has deep meaning for Sikhs.

Capt. Kamaljit Singh Kalsi, a doctor, and Second Lt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist, said they were assured by military recruiters that their turbans and unshorn hair "would not be a problem" when they were recruited to join the Army's Health Professions Scholarship Program. The program paid for medical training in return for their military service.

The men maintained their turbans throughout graduate school, during specialized Army training, at Army ceremonies and while working in military medical facilities. Now, the Army is telling the two Sikhs that they must conform to uniform rules.

"I was shocked to learn that the Army would go back on its promise and tell me I would have to give up my faith in order to serve," said Kalsi in an April 14, 2009, statement. "There is nothing about my religion that stops me from doing my job. I know I can serve well without compromising my faith." Kalsi is the fourth generation in his family to serve in the military.

In 1981, the Army banned "conspicuous" religious articles of faith for its service members. However, Sikhs and other soldiers who were part of the Army before the 1981 rule change were allowed to continue to wear their articles of faith. As a result, two now-retired Army officers, Col. Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon, a doctor, and Col. G.B. Singh, a dentist, served with their turbans and unshorn hair for 25 years.

Army Regulations Preclude Sikh Recruits from Serving

Army regulations state, in part, that soldiers may wear religious headgear while in uniform if the headgear:

  • Is subdued in color (black, brown, green, dark or navy blue, or a combination of these colors).
  • Is of a style and size that can be covered completely by standard military headgear.
  • Does not interfere with the proper wear or functioning of protective clothing or equipment.

The regulation states that exceptions or accommodations to hair and grooming requirements based on religious practices will not be granted.

Army regulations are based on Department of Defense Directive 1300.17 - Accommodation of Religious Practices within the Military Services. Each branch of the military has adopted the regulations, adding language necessary to reflect the unique circumstances of that branch.

Yet Sikhs have a long history of serving in armed forces throughout the world with their religious identity intact. According to the coalition, Sikh soldiers have served in the Army as far back as World War I. Thousands of Sikh soldiers helped liberate France in WWII. And today, Sikhs serve in the militaries of England, Canada, India and Austria, among others, often alongside American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Sikh Coalition, along with the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, has filed a formal complaint with the Department of the Army's Inspector General on behalf of the two recruits, challenging the decision to keep observant Sikhs out of the Army.

“Our clients are physicians and are not required to wear helmets very often,” says Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition. But if they are required to, they can, she says. “Beneath their turban they wear an under turban. If necessary, they would take the outer turban off and wear the under turban under the helmet.”

As for facial hair, Army regulations require soldiers to be clean shaven, with the exception of “neatly trimmed, tapered and tidy” mustaches. Kaur notes that the Army gives certain medical exceptions to the beard rule, suggesting that the ban on facial hair may be based—to some extent— on preference rather than necessity.

However, beards may interfere with the fit of respirators, which are sometimes required to be worn by soldiers. But Kaur notes that there are plenty of people who wear beards who pass a respiratory fit test, and some who are clean-shaven fail such tests.

“The big issue is whether there is a concern about the articles of faith that is based on reality or is merely speculative,” Kaur says. For example, some employers raise concerns about the Kirpan, which is usually a small, tightly-sheathed dagger worn under the clothing.

“There is no specific prescribed length or sharpness of the Kirpan,” according to Kaur, but it is the least of an employer’s worries when it comes to the average workplace, she says: “We’ve found there are many other more dangerous objects in the office like sharp letter openers, scissors and box cutters.”

She says employers who have a concern about an employee’s Kirpan should talk to the employee about it and, if necessary, respectfully ask them to show it to the employer. “Sikhs welcome the opportunity to talk about their faith because they were subject to a lot of post -911 backlash and misunderstandings,” Kaur says.

“We urge folks to make decisions that are based on fact,” Kaur says. “There is a lot of ignorance about our articles of faith. Sit down and have an honest conversation.”

Uniformity and Appearance Standards

Nonmilitary employers may face similar issues when their dress and grooming policies clash with Sikh beliefs.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Compliance Manual includes a section on religious accommodation that provides several examples of accommodations for Sikhs.

One solution for some employers is to provide religious articles of clothing in colors and fabrics that match required military and nonmilitary uniforms. As ​ SHRM Online has reported, United Parcel Service provides its employees around the world with a wide array of uniform options— all in the well-known brown color—to try to meet cultural and religious needs.

The challenge by the Sikh soldiers isn’t the first the Army has faced, nor will it be the last. Rastafarian soldiers would require an accommodation to maintain dreadlocks, for example, which are banned by Army regulations, and some Muslim and Pentecostal women might request uniform accommodations.

“There are ways the Army can meet its need to achieve the mission and also bring their policy of religious accommodation to life,” Yuengling says.

Whatever the outcome of the challenge, Yuengling hopes that the result will be a more inclusive military that sees its religious diversity as a strength rather than an obstacle.

She added that such visible diversity could serve as an inspiring reminder of what makes America a unique nation and as a tribute to the Army’s ability to get a diverse group of people to adopt the Army’s superordinate identity—an identity larger than themselves—while leaving room for personal identities based on race, gender or religion.

“Senior Army leadership is aware of this issue and is currently reviewing this matter. Once this review is complete, senior Army leadership will decide on a course of action for these two soldiers,” Wayne V. Hall, an Army spokesperson, told SHRM Online.

“America's Army leverages and draws strength from our diversity and we make every effort to accommodate and encourage diversity consistent with military necessity,” he added. “Although our current regulations establish the standards of wear and appearance of the uniform, we understand the importance of reviewing the foundations behind our current policies when circumstances warrant.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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