U.S. Navy revises religious accommodation request policy regarding beards, attire

by | Mar 31, 2020

Under a new policy issued March 16, the U.S. Navy joined the trend among American military branches in expanding the ability of service members to wear religiously motivated head covering and beards. The policy requires navy officials to meet a high threshold and to explain its decision before denying a request for accommodation from the Navy’s grooming and attire regulations.

Here is an excerpt:

Commanders will not deny or recommend denial of a religious accommodation unless the denial or partial denial furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. It is essential that commanders articulate the factual basis underlying any compelling government interest and that they articulate why a recommended denial or partial denial is the least restrictive means available to the commander to protect the compelling government interest over the individual request.

Both the Army and Air Force have issued similar accommodation policies in recent years.

While concerns remain that this change does not go far enough to protect all religious personnel, this development is a step in the right direction, and it is good news for the cause of religious freedom for all. No American should have to choose needlessly between military service on one hand and the dictates of their faith on the other. 

Kudos to the Sikh community, which has a strong tradition of military service and has taken the lead in pressing the U.S. military to offer stronger accommodation policies. In a press release, the Sikh Coalition praises the improvement in Navy policies, but warns of the need to remain vigilant about its application.

[T]he new policy improves upon previous Navy regulations by allowing for unconcealed religious headwear for the first time ever, and it clarifies the approval process for accommodations for beards of any length. However, due to a lack of clarity on the permanence of religious accommodations in certain circumstances and specific duty types, the Sikh Coalition will continue engaging with the Navy to understand the full scope of this updated policy and the opportunity it provides.

You can read the Navy’s new “Standards and Procedures Governing the Accommodation of Religious Practices” here.