Thursday, January 23, 2014

U.S. Military Issues New Policy On Religious Accommodation

The Department of Defense yesterday adopted a revised policy on religious accommodation in the military by issuing significant amendments to Department of Defense Instruction 1300.17 on Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services. (Full text of amended Instruction.).  The new policy provides generally that the Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of military personnel "to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all." It then sets up elaborate criteria for determining whether to grant an exemption from a military rule on religious grounds:
  • A request for religious accommodation will be promptly granted if it will not affect mission accomplishment.
  • Where an accommodation would affect mission accomplishment, the "compelling interest"-"least restrictive means" standard of RFRA will be used if the military requirement involved "substantially burdens" a service member's exercise of religion.
  • Where mission accomplishment is affected and the military policy does not impose a substantial burden, an exemption from it on religious grounds will be denied whenever the needs of mission accomplishment outweigh the needs of the service member.
The directive specifically envisions that accommodations may include matters of grooming and appearance (including hair length), religious tattoos or religiously motivated body piercings. However, in defining when the military has a "compelling interest" in enforcing a policy, the directive provides:
DoD has a compelling government interest in ... elements of mission accomplishment such as military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health, and safety, on both the individual and unit levels. An essential part of unit cohesion is establishing and maintaining uniform military grooming and appearance standards.
Wall Street Journal reports on the new policy.