Some ironies are more than cruel. On the day that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan approached Fort Hood armed with two handguns, he may have passed a newsstand selling copies of the November 9 edition of Army Times. On the front page was a photograph of a Sikh soldier wearing a beard, mustache, and turban with his uniform, accompanied by the headline, “Regs Make Way for Religion — Sikh, Muslim Allowed to Incorporate Customs into Army Dress.”
Maj. Gen. Gina S. Farrisee, acting deputy chief of staff for Army personnel at the Pentagon, had granted a “religious accommodation” exception for Capt. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a Sikh physician. Without providing a reason for the special treatment, General Farrisee’s October 22 letter stated that Captain Kalsi would be allowed to wear uncut hair, a turban, and a beard with his uniform. The religious accommodation was granted for Kalsi alone, and the letter explicitly states that the Army may revoke it at any time. (Another Sikh, who has been studying dentistry under the same Health Professions Scholarship Program that Kalsi was enrolled in, expects a similar personal waiver.)
Army Times further reported that a Muslim officer serving as an orthopedic-surgery intern at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center had received permission to “wear a beard, as required by his sect of the Muslim faith.” The armed forces will have difficulty denying similar privileges not just to the 3,400 Muslims currently serving, but to thousands of other military personnel requesting uniform exemptions for other religious or personal reasons.
Sikhs, who are not Muslims, have a storied history as warriors in the Indian and British armies. They have served in the American military during periods of conscription, such as World War II and Vietnam. In 1967, however, the armed forces adopted regulations establishing uniform grooming and clothing standards for all volunteers. Military men and women may not wear religious head coverings, garments, or jewelry that are inconsistent with uniform appearance.
The armed forces guard individual rights, but they are governed by different rules from civilian organizations. In the 1986 Goldman v. Weinberger case, the Supreme Court upheld military regulations barring Jews from wearing yarmulkes while in uniform. Constitutional rights and freedoms guaranteed to civilians are subordinate to military necessity.
Now the Army is inviting more petitions from individuals seeking specal accommodations on a “case-by-case basis.” Having abandoned sound practice without justification, the Army will have no principle on which to stand. These accommodations will erode military culture, fueling doubts about the judgment of leadership and resentment of special treatment for religious minorities. This would be the case even if there were no reports of a Muslim extremist shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” while murdering fellow soldiers at Fort Hood.
The Sikh Coalition issued a report applauding the decision in the case of Captain Kalsi and demanding complete revocation of extant regulations concerning grooming and clothing. It claims that Sikhs have been barred from military service — whereas in fact they can serve if they comply with personal-dress rules applied to persons of all faiths.
Captain Kalsi told Army Times that in 2001 recruiters assured him that he would be able to maintain the uncut hair and turban that are mandatory in his Sikh faith, but he said superiors revoked permission in 2008 when he had completed the scholarship program and was preparing for active duty. Instead of capitulating to Captain Kalsi, General Farrisee should have supported his superiors. The Pentagon also should hold accountable any recruiter who fostered misunderstandings about uniform regulations.
In several interviews following the Fort Hood attack, the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, expressed concern about possible “backlash” against Muslim soldiers. Casey told the Wall Street Journal that it would be an “even greater tragedy if our diversity becomes a casualty here.#…#We have a very diverse society. And that gives us all strength.”
That statement makes sense only if the Army maintains professional uniform standards for all, without favoritism, special treatment, or political correctness.
If individuals on active duty may choose their own mode of dress on a “case-by-case basis,” why not allow peyote smoking and other controversial religious practices, provided that the entire unit agrees and there is no unit-cohesion problem?
Rights of individual expression and free speech are surely equal to freedom of religion, so Army officials should allow military band members to wear their hair longer than regulation and have cool-looking beards. They should also suspend regulations forbidding loud criticism of the president, if soldiers in a given unit agree, and allow uniformed personnel to wear political messages and run for political office while on duty.
Come to think of it, some soldiers consider it “demeaning” to have to salute superiors, and others want labor unions to press for better living conditions. Absent adherence to sound priorities, the Army will have difficulty avoiding a headlong slide down diversity’s slippery slope.
It is wrong to blame innocent co-religionists and other people of faith for the massacre at Fort Hood. The only way to guard against “backlash” is to carefully review all policy exemptions and revoke those that depart from sound principles. Today’s military personnel are volunteers. If there is a conflict between religious expression and military discipline, the needs of the military must come first.
– Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public-policy organization that specializes in military/social issues.