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April 4, 2014

Coalition Promotes Expanded Religious Accommodation In The Military

On January 22, 2014 the Department of Defense (DoD) published an updated and revised Instruction 1300.17–Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military ServicesThe new guidance, which describes policy, procedures, and responsibilities for the accommodation of religious practices in the Armed Forces, was designed “to ensure the protection of rights of conscience of members of the Armed Forces.”  The updated guidance sought to strike the proper balance between military readiness and religious freedom for service members.   But it fell short in not providing a sufficient accommodation for some fundamental aspects of minority religious practice.  120407-M-KX613-023.jpg

For example, the guidance lays out a formal process so that Jewish and Sikh soldiers may request an accommodation for their required head coverings (a kippah or a turban) and incorporates grooming standards that provide a path for approval for beards.   However, each soldier must still request an individual, case-by-case accommodation under the guidance – a daunting and stressful prospect for some, with an uncertain outcome.   In the name of “…maintaining uniform military grooming and appearance standards,” the effect is to exclude some individuals who would otherwise welcome the opportunity to serve their country in the military.  

In January, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held hearings on religious accommodations in the military. ADL, the Sikh Coalition, and the ACLU, (among others) raised this issue in their statements.  And Holly Hollman, General Counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, articulately described  the delicate balancing act facing the military in addressing religious liberty concerns. 

Importantly, more than 100 Members of Congress have weighed in on religious accommodation in the military in a letter to the Pentagon, coordinated by Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY).   

And this week ADL, the Sikh Coalition, and the ACLU coordinated a letter to the Pentagon from an unusually broad coalition of twenty-one national groups with real religious liberty credentials and subject matter expertise.  The interfaith coalition letter stated that the current guidance “needlessly infringe on the rights of these religiously observant service members and prospective service members” and urged the Pentagon to fine-tune the Instruction to better accommodate religious practices. 

The same command structure that provides unique pressure to conform within the military – and potential for inappropriate proselytizing and religious coercion – also makes the direct involvement of the Pentagon’s leadership in promoting effective, uniform guidance and solutions to this problem critically important. 

The signatories to the coalition letter are: 

American Civil Liberties Union, American Jewish Committee (AJC). Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Anti-Defamation League, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, Christian Legal Society, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Episcopal Church, Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Interfaith Alliance, Muslim Advocates, National Council of Jewish Women, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), Sikh Coalition, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Union for Reform Judaism

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February 5, 2013

Religious Accommodation for Sikh Corrections Officer

Last week, responding to appeals by The Sikh Coalition and ADL, the Arizona Department of Corrections agreed to allow a religious accommodation for Ikhbinder Bassin, a ten-year employee of the Department and an observant Sikh. 

As part of his religious obligations, Mr. Bassin does not cut his hair (including facial hair) and wears a kara (a religiously mandated steel bracelet).  Upon his entry into his position in 2003, Mr. Bassin was granted a waiver from departmental policy that prohibits the wearing of bracelets (other than for medical purposes) and from shearing his hair.  However, in December of 2012, close to his 10th anniversary, when Mr. Bassin would apparently become eligible for extended employee benefits, he was notified by a compliance officer that he was not in compliance with Arizona Department of Corrections policy.  The compliance officer advised Mr. Bassin that he must comply or face possible termination or reassignment into a non-uniform position.

Acting on Mr. Bassin’s behalf, The Sikh Coalition notified the Department that under federal and state law, including the First Amendment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act, terminating or demoting Mr. Bassin for his religious beliefs would violate the Department’s obligations under the law.

With time running out, and little indication that his religious accommodation would be granted, Mr. Bassin reached out to ADL and other organizations to advocate that his religious rights be accommodated.  Following a consultation with The Sikh Coalition, ADL endorsed their efforts, addressing a letter to a variety of Arizona government stakeholders. The League notified these government officials that we agreed with The Sikh Coalition’s legal analysis, and urged a religious accommodation for Mr. Bassin.  ADL’s Arizona regional office also signed on to an interfaith coalition letter supporting Mr. Bassin’s request.  These coalition efforts paid off.

By granting Mr. Bassin the requested accommodation, the Arizona Department of Corrections demonstrated a welcome respect for fundamental principles of religious liberty. When similar situations arise elsewhere, other Departments should follow Arizona’s lead.

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