By Tim Devaney - 09/20/14 09:14 AM EDT
The military is growing more “sensitive” under the Obama administration, Pentagon observers say, by relaxing long-standing restrictions on soldiers’ religious and personal liberties.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon has backed off controversial hairstyle regulations that critics said discriminated against black women and made the phrase “so help me god” optional in the oath for airmen.
Earlier this year, the military loosened its rules for soldiers who want to wear turbans or grow religious beards and provided exemptions for having tattoos and piercings.
“We want to make sure we’re not offending people,” a DOD official told The Hill.
The military seems to be shifting away from many of the more rigid requirements that once defined service in the armed forces in order to keep pace with cultural changes, experts say.
“If I had told you 10 years ago we were going to drop the ban on gays or that women would get into the special forces, you’d say, ‘No way,’ ” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, who is a former assistant secretary of defense.
“Well, that’s happening,” he said.
Mackenzie Eaglen, who formerly worked at the Pentagon and is now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the recent changes might be “slightly more political in nature.”
“This president has instituted an impressive array of social change in the Defense Department during his six years,” Eaglen said.
She pointed out the Pentagon “seems to be more sensitive to political correctness” these days.
“They’re much quicker to respond to things that offend service members,” Eaglen said.
In the latest policy change, the Air Force announced Wednesday it will no longer force airmen to declare “so help me God” when they are taking the oath.
An atheist airman had protested the requirement, after he was original told he couldn’t reenlist without reciting the oath word for word.
“You have more and more people these days who don’t have a religion or don’t believe in the Almighty,” Korb said. “Do you want to exclude that person?"
The move came shortly after the Pentagon last month reversed what critics said were offensive hairstyle regulations that unfairly singled out black women.
Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelThere's still time for another third-party option Hagel says NATO deployment could spark a new Cold War with Russia Overnight Defense: House panel unveils 5B defense spending bill MORE called on the military to remove terms like “matted,” “unkempt,” and “dreadlocks” from its hairstyle regulations, after members of the Congressional Black Caucus objected.
Soldiers will now be allowed to wear ponytails during physical training, as well as larger braids, cornrows and twists.
“Now that you’ve got more and more women, you’re going to have to deal with reality as long as you want to keep them,” Korb said.
Back in January, the Pentagon also created religious exemptions for soldiers who want to wear turbans and other forms of religious clothing, so long as it doesn’t interfere with military readiness, a mission, or unit cohesion.
The exemption would also apply to soldiers who want to grow beards or display tattoos and piercings for religious reasons.
These changes are all part of an effort by the Pentagon to “eliminate any offensive language” in its regulations, the DOD official said.
Korb sees it as a matter of recruitment for the military.
“If you say, ‘We’re not going to let anybody with tattoos into the military,’ you’re going to exclude a lot of really good people,” he said.
Korb also said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Pentagon loosened the rules for transgender servicemembers in the near future.
“If you’re a great soldier or airman or marine and decide to have a transgender thing, we’ll take you,” he said.