1AP’s 3 Things to Know—Religious Freedom and the Military
As the class of 2021 enters West Point as cadets, they benefit from a January 2017 policy change that protects the liberty of many religious minorities.
- Practitioners of minority religions have served in the United States military with honor and distinction since the Revolutionary War. In fact, George Washington created the military chaplain corps to minister to soldiers of all faiths.
- But from 1981 until 2017, a ban on facial hair and head coverings effectively banned Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims from military service. Practitioners of minority religions had to apply for exemptions to this rule, but exemptions were not always granted.
- Army Captain Simratpal “Simmer” Singh had served for 9 years when he decided to stand up for the rights of his fellow soldiers. With support from army chaplains and his fellow soldiers, Captain Singh filed suit and won the right to wear a beard and turban under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 2016. Under RFRA, Singh’s right to practice his Sikh faith outweighed the government’s desire for uniformity, especially since there were exemptions—religious, medical, and other—permitting thousands of soldiers to deviate from the facial hair and head covering dress codes already.
Singh’s lawsuit encouraged the Army to change its policy. Now soldiers will no longer be forced to choose between serving their country or living out their faith. West Point’s new cadets have plenty of change ahead, but one thing they won’t have to worry about is whether they can practice their religion.
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