A crowded hearing of the House Armed Services Committee confronted Defense Department officials and chaplains with the question of whether a new Department of Defense policy to ensure religious freedom is working.
Reports of the hearing focused on two groups: the freedom of minority religions to express themselves and whether evangelical Christians, particularly in the chaplain’s corps, are permitted to proselytize.
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.
Members of the panel questioned whether military commanders are allowed to proselytize. Brig. Gen. Charles R. Bailey, the Army’s deputy chief of chaplains, said it would be “wrong” for commanders to say that their faith is superior to any other, but other kinds of private conversations about faith are permitted.
“They’re never told they cannot share their own personal faith of any sort,” he said.
Some members of Congress seem to have a different impression from the military’s top chaplains about the state of religious accommodation in the military, said Bishop James B. Magness of the Episcopal Church’s armed services office.
“There’s a real disconnect,” said Magness, “if things are being said to members of Congress that are not getting to the chiefs of chaplains. I don’t have a reason for why.”
Sikh members of the armed forces were particularly concerned that Sikhs concerned about the need for greater accommodation. They says that the need for special permission to wear turbans and beards in accordance with their faith is a “presumptive ban on Sikh articles of faith” that the new policy does not address.