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The visibly religious and the military

The surprise of greater public diversity of religion in the UK than the US, despite the official Church of England

Do you remember this 1986 decision of the United States Supreme Court?

“The First Amendment does not prohibit the challenged regulation from being applied to petitioner, even though its effect is to restrict the wearing of the headgear required by his religious beliefs. That Amendment does not require the military to accommodate such practices as wearing a yarmulke in the face of its view that they would detract from the uniformity sought by dress regulations. Here, the Air Force has drawn the line essentially between religious apparel that is visible and that which is not, and the challenged regulation reasonably and evenhandedly regulates dress in the interest of the military’s perceived need for uniformity”. Goldman v. Weinberger (No. 84-1097)

This past week, 31 years after the Goldman decision, the military modified its position on the issue of religious clothing. “The military departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) of service members unless it might affect military readiness or unit cohesion.”

In practice, the individual must apply for a dispensation from his/her commanding officer each time the service person is transferred. Far from a sweeping change in military procedure, the new rule still allows for commanding officers to refuse permission for religious attire such as a Sikh wearing a turban or an observant Jew wearing a yarmulke.

How is religious accommodation handled in the military of the British Army?

“There are many Jews serving in the Regular Army, who are employed in a variety of roles and do so balancing the needs of the services and their faith while maintaining operational effectiveness. Those serving have no doubt that practising their faith while serving complements the Army’s values of selfless commitment, courage, discipline, integrity, loyalty and respect for others.

A male Jewish soldier may wear a dark, plain pattern yarmulke whenever he removes other headdress. In all barracks, chefs are able to cook vegetarian and kosher options that are suitable for Jewish soldiers, on request, and special ration packs can be arranged when on exercise or operations. Quiet rooms are available if you wish to pray, and provided that your operational and training needs are met, you are free to observe the Jewish Sabbath and other festivals…”

I find it fascinating that in the United Kingdom, a society that, unlike the United States, has an official religion, the Church of England, finds no problem in accommodating the religious garb of all faiths, when facing the same military issues as the American armed forces.

Frankly, in civilian life, the British are much more accommodating of religious diversity than are we in the United States. Ever ride the underground in London? It is common to see Sikh conductors wearing their uniform with their turban. I would suspect that a Sikh desiring to wear his turban as a conductor on the New York City subway would have to jump through hoops to possibly get a special dispensation.

It is both interesting and a challenge to our own society that the United Kingdom, a society that has an official state religion, provides for the practice of other faiths and apparently is more accommodating of these faiths than our own society, which separates all religious faith from the state.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
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