On Wednesday, the Department of Defense released a revision to the existing instruction on accommodating religious practices (DoD Instruction 1300.17 of Feb. 10, 2009, with change 1 of Jan. 22, 2014). While there are some differences between the revised instruction and the one that it updates, the basic direction is the same. You may have seen articles in the media or reports on TV highlighting the new changes in the policy. We wanted to take the opportunity to share additional context and talk about what this means for the Navy.
This instruction provides better clarity on how we manage the intersection of the free exercise of religion and what’s required to accomplish our military missions. It gives amplifying information on who has the authority to address specific questions and service member religious requests. We will use the instruction as we finish revising our own Navy policies on this topic.
We value the rights of our Sailors to practice their religion of choice, or none at all, as we also ensure we’re able to accomplish our military missions. Accomplishing our mission requires us to maintain unit cohesion, which is built on a level of uniformity and discipline. We have law and policy to help guide us in making decisions about requests to accommodate particular religious practices, such as getting time off for a religious observance, meeting religious dietary requirements, or wearing a religious article of clothing that conflicts with our uniform regulations. But this is never simple; it requires seasoned leaders at all levels to use their best professional judgment as they look at all of the factors in each particular case.
Just as before, there are some requests that a local unit commander can evaluate and approve. That includes requests for time to participate in a religious observance, or to obtain separate food to meet religious dietary necessities. Our Bureau of Medicine and Surgery will continue to weigh in on requests for waivers to medical immunizations based on religious reasons.
One change to take note of has to do with requests for accommodations that involve wearing an item of religious apparel or grooming and appearance practices, such as a beard or piercing, for religious reasons. Local commanders may no longer make that decision. Any request that requires a waiver to our Navy uniform or grooming regulations must be submitted to the Secretary of the Navy. This change allows for greater consistency and uniformity in how our policies are decided and carried out.
Chaplains and JAG officers advise leaders as they evaluate requests for religious accommodation, with every request handled on a case-by-case basis. In all of these requests, leaders at every echelon pay close attention to a number of factors, including, but not limited to:
- The importance of military readiness and unit cohesion in carrying out the military missions,
- Health and safety,
- The religious importance of the requested accommodation to the one making the request.
Whether it’s the local commanding officer, Chief of Naval Personnel, or Secretary of the Navy, each of these factors is considered as we honor the right to observe the tenets of a religious faith and ensure we’re able to accomplish our missions. If you have further questions on this policy, be sure to ask your chain of command, a local chaplain or your Region Legal Service Office to get more information and guidance.