By Chris Carroll
Copyright 2014 Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON — House legislators confronted Defense Department officials and chaplains in a heavily attended hearing Wednesday with the question of whether a new DOD policy to ensure religious freedom really does what it’s supposed to do.
The policy announced last week says servicemembers can follow, among other things, their religions’ grooming standards based on “sincerely held beliefs” if the exceptions don’t harm unit readiness or cohesion — but one member of the House Armed Services Committee personnel subcommittee asked if the directive goes far enough.
Sikh groups and several Sikh members of the armed forces are worried that the policy’s requirement to seek waivers from top service branch officials in order to wear the religion’s mandatory beards and turbans effectively bars them from the military, said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.
Meanwhile, a number of other Republican legislators expressed concern that DOD’s policy on religious freedom, which comes on the heels of major reversals on divisive issues such as gays in the military and same-sex marriage, might not protect the religious rights of Christian believers.
About 10 turbaned Sikhs were in the hearing room Wednesday, and more who could not be seated in the packed hearing room waited in the hallway.
Might Sikhs joining the military be forced to adopt regulation grooming in boot camp while they await a waiver, or seek new waivers every time they are reassigned, Heck asked?