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Changes to Marine uniform regulations may allow religious apparel

Apr. 25, 2013 - 12:57PM   |  

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U.S. servicemembers hold candles during an Easter Vigil at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan on April 7, 2012. The vigil was one of the various religious celebrations observed by troops at the base that weekend. (Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez / Marine Corps)
Lance Cpl. Malike Mejdouli prays during the early morning of the last day of Ramadan at Combat Outpost Pennsylvania, August 19, 2012. (Cpl. Anthony Ward Jr. / Marine Corps)
Col. Kevin Vest, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 40, Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, follows along in prayer at a Rosh Hashanah service, Sept. 18, 2009, at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Cpl. Aaron Rooks / Marine Corps)

The Marine Corps has announced changes to uniform and grooming regulations that will allow for the wearing of certain religious apparel that might, in some cases, be visible on Marines in uniform.

It was not immediately clear if the changes would pave the way for Marines to wear beards or head coverings for religious reasons; Marine officials were unavailable for comment. But revisions to the service's uniform regulations set forth in Marine Corps Order P1020.34G detail when visible and nonvisible religious articles can be worn, when exceptions can be made to grooming standards for religious reasons, and the procedure to apply for permission to wear visible religious apparel while in uniform but outside of religious services.

According to the changes announced in Marine administrative message 207/13, signed April 17, Marines may now wear:

■Articles of religious apparel that are not visible or apparent when worn with the uniform.

■Visible articles of religious apparel with the uniform while attending or conducting religious services or while in a chapel or other house of worship.

■Visible articles of religious apparel with the uniform, but only with special approval.

Those who would like to wear a visible religious symbol in uniform, but outside of religious services, can seek approval by sending a request, via an administrative action form, through their chain of command to the deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. Requests will be reviewed by a standing board.

In an interview with Marine Corps Times last fall, Lt. Gen. Willie J. Williams, then-director of the Marine Corps Staff, said officials were debating how to respond to requests for religious accommodation, and at what level decisions should be made regarding waivers.

"The uniform is something we're very proud of," Williams said, "and we want consistency throughout [the Corps]."

The decision now rests with the manpower director "because he looks at it from the standpoint of the Corps as a whole, as opposed to someone at the battalion or even division level," Williams said. "We don't want to run the risk of having one division authorizing what another doesn't."In recent years, several service members whose faith requires beards or head coverings have fought military uniform and grooming standards and won.

The Army stopped granting exemptions to its uniform and appearance regulations in 1984. But in 2010, it resumed granting waivers on a limited basis for beards and headgear, allowing several Sikhs, Muslims and a Hasidic Jewish rabbi to join the ranks.

Whether the Corps will grant similar waivers remains to be seen. But some view the revisions with a skeptical eye.

If the revisions will permit a Jewish Marine to wear a yarmulke or a Sikh Marine to wear a beard, the change could be benign, even positive, said Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

He voiced concern, however, that changes that allow for more overt religious apparel could be used by individuals to proselytize or push their religion on others.

For now, he said, Marines will have to wait and see what effects the changes will have.

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