By BEN KESLING
Jan. 6, 2017 2:22 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—The U.S. Army relaxed its rules this week for soldiers seeking religious exemptions to uniform regulations, a move the Army says will better enable it to recruit a broad range of troops.The new rule announced Tuesday makes it easier for Sikhs, Muslims and members of other religious groups to wear turbans, beards, headscarves and other signs of religious devotion. Brigade commanders can now grant such permissions where previously individual soldiers had to petition the secretary of the Army.
The regulation, which could be reversed by the incoming Trump administration, gives soldiers the benefit of the doubt, instructing commanders only to deny an exemption if they feel a soldier doesn’t have a sincerely-held religious belief or if it poses a “concrete hazard” to the soldier. For example, an unkempt beard interferes with the safe use of gas masks by troops who might exposed to noxious chemicals.
“The Army has reviewed its policies to ensure soldiers can serve in a manner consistent with their faith so that we can recruit from the broadest pool of America’s best,” Army Secretary Eric Fanning said in a statement. “This directive provides the guidance our leaders and soldiers need and enables the Army to better reflect the nation and citizenry it protects.” Observant Sikh men don’t trim their beards, instead twisting them so they are worn close to the face, and wear a turban. Some observant Muslim women wear a head scarf known as a hijab.“This is the most significant development in our campaign to end employment discrimination by our nation’s largest employer since the U.S. military initiated a policy of banning visible articles of faith in 1981,” said Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition. “The old policy presumptively banned observant Sikhs; the new rule tilts the presumption in favor of accommodating Sikhs and others with religious articles of faith.”Women soldiers are also now allowed to wear dreadlocks, cornrows and braids without having to ask for an exemption, a concession some African-American troops have sought for years.
Mr. Trump’s transition team didn’t respond to a request for comment.In the past, a handful of members of religious minorities were permitted to deviate from Army uniform regulations, but that permission was granted at the highest level of the Army, with the first high-profile exemption granted only after the soldier filed a lawsuit to do so.The change only affects soldiers in the Army. All other servicemembers must request waivers from their branch secretary, according to Department of Defense regulations.
—Corinne Abrams contributed to this article.
Write to Ben Kesling at firstname.lastname@example.org Regulation to Allow More Religious Exemptions