Religious Accommodations in the ArmySeptember 28, 2020
Religious accommodations in the Army are governed by AR 600-20, paragraph 5-6. This article is meant as a general overview. Most commonly, religious accommodations in the Army come up regarding worship practices, dietary practices, medical care, wear and appearance of uniforms, and personal appearance/grooming procedures.
Some religious items do not need approval to wear in uniform. These items include a yarmulke, necklace, or metal bracelet (as long as they are "neat and conservative"). Furthermore, religious items that are not visible while in uniform and do not interfere with a Soldier's duty performance may also be worn without prior approval. Any other deviation from AR 670-1 regarding uniforms/personal appearance needs to be approved by the appropriate authority.
The standard is as follows: "request for religious accommodations from a military policy, practice or duty that substantially burdens a Soldier's (to include military prisoners) exercise of religion may be denied only when the military policy, practice or duty furthers a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest."
Using this standard, a Soldier is responsible for first demonstrating that they have a sincerely held religious belief and THEN that some military policy, practice or duty is substantially burdening their religious exercise. If a Soldier meets this burden, the Command must then demonstrate how/why the government action furthers a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Some specifically listed compelling Governmental interests are: safety, health, good order, discipline, uniformity, National Security, and mission accomplishment.
The level of Commander that can approve a religious accommodation depends on the specific request being made:
- Worship, modesty and dietary practice: Unit Commanders are the approval/denial authority
- Medical practice: Unit Commanders, in consultation with the command medical advisor, are the approval/denial authority; however, for immunizations, the Surgeon General is the approval/denial authority
- Uniform and grooming practice: Some requests can be approved/denied by the General Court Martial Convening Authority; however, any request that requires a waiver of an Army policy requires the Secretary of the Army's approval/denial
Any Soldier whose religious accommodation request was denied may request separation from the Army.
Any Soldier requesting religious accommodations in the army, appealing an adverse decision, or requesting separation from the Army after a request was denied, should consult with a military lawyer.
This article was written by Attorney Matthew Barry.