Our nation was built by people pursuing religious liberty. And our nation’s military has long championed this liberty, ensuring—in the words of the Army Chaplaincy motto—that American service members can serve Pro Deo et Patria: for God and Country. But today, our military is making some religious minorities choose between their faith and their nation.

Many of America’s founding generation learned religious tolerance as colonial soldiers serving beside men of religions which, in Europe, were at each other’s throats. George Washington exemplified this when he served in Virginia’s colonial militia. At a time when Anglicanism was Virginia’s official religion and non-Anglican ministers were treated unfavorably by the colony, he insisted that troops under his command have chaplains from their own diverse faith groups. During the American Revolution, Washington extended this rule to the Continental Army, ordering that “every Regiment . . . hav[e] a chaplain of their own religious sentiments.”

ADVERTISEMENT

From this, our nation’s military chaplain corps was born, predating the birth of the nation itself. This still-vibrant chaplaincy is just one of many testaments to the military’s tradition of respecting faith.

Regrettably, our military isn’t living up to the best of this tradition, particularly for some religious minorities. For instance, Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest religion, has been in the United States for over 100 years and has about 500,000 U.S. adherents. But today, Sikh Americans are presumptively banned from the military because their faith requires them to wear beards and turbans at all times. Other minority faiths, such as Orthodox Jews, face a similar ban. This means that prisoners — whom the U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed must be allowed to wear beards required by their faiths—receive protection for their faith unavailable to the men and women who lay down their lives to protect us all.

This was not always true. Until the early 1980s, Sikhs and others were allowed to serve in our military without compromising their faith. And a handful are still allowed in on a case-by-case basis. They served, and still serve, honorably. One Sikh major was recently awarded the Bronze Star for saving service members’ lives in Afghanistan, including two who were clinically dead.

Some argue, though, that beards harm the military’s uniformity and thus its effectiveness. That argument would surprise famously bearded military leaders like Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Ambrose Burnsides (whose side-heavy beard was the source of our term “sideburns”). And the military already has many other exceptions to uniformity: it allows medically required beards, permits mustaches, lets female service members have long hair (and different uniforms), and is rolling out a new tattoo policy allowing soldiers to be covered with skulls, snakes, swords, and almost anything else non-obscene. So the military should be able to accommodate minority religious groups’ appearance requirements, as other respected military allies—such as Britain, Canada, and Australia—already do.

Moreover, Sikhs have already accommodated themselves to the military. Sikh soldiers have camouflage or black turbans to match unit headgear, and thin turbans to fit under helmets. And they wear their beards neatly tucked up, both to maintain an orderly look and to fit under a gas mask. In boot camp, one recently accommodated Sikh soldier completing gas-mask training stayed in the gas chamber longer than his entire unit to prove that his beard didn’t limit his effectiveness.

The military recognizes the problem with its ban and has taken some steps to fix it. On the symbolic level, this Friday—for just the second time in U.S. history—the Pentagon’s office of the chaplain will host an event celebrating Vaisakhi, an important Sikh religious holiday. More substantively, about a year ago, the military updated and expanded its religious accommodation regulations, creating the first official path for minority faiths to seek permission to maintain religious attire requirements.

But these steps still fall short. For instance, Sikhs attending the Pentagon’s Vaisakhi Celebration must leave their religiously-mandated kirpans behind, despite passing Pentagon security clearances. (Kirpans are small ceremonial blades that can be shorter and duller than a butter knife. My firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, recently won a case where the IRS fired a Sikh woman for wearing her kirpan.) And Sikhs are still presumptively barred from the military because the new regulations require them to shave their beards before their accommodation requests will even be considered—meaning that they must violate their faith to try to protect it.

This state of affairs is why another important event took place this week: on Wednesday, a federal court heard a young Sikh’s lawsuit to join the ROTC. The military would be better off finishing its own trajectory toward protecting religious liberty, drawing guidance from the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, than making the courts force it to do so. But if the military balks and fails to live up to its proud tradition of religious accommodation, our nation’s guarantees of religious liberty should ensure that the courts do not.

Blomberg is legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, non-profit, public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. | @thebecketfund