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Department of Defense Press Briefing with Rear Admiral Kirby from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby
January 23, 2014


Q: John, the department eased regulations this week on beards and other religious headgear. Can you explain that decision and where it came from? It comes on the heels of changes to force culture, force structure, in terms of allowing women into -- or investigating whether women -- opening combat positions up to women. And there are some who are saying that this is an example of social engineering in the military right now. Can you comment on that?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I sure can. First of all, it's not social engineering in the military. The secretary believes that the -- that the opportunity to serve your country in uniform should be as open to as many Americans as possible, obviously, within certain standards, of course. And he's committed, as was Secretary Panetta before him, to removing as many barriers to that service as possible and to make the military service a vocation that one wants to pursue and can pursue for a career.

So all of these changes that you're seeing writ large are really, I think, just an honest effort to make sure that -- that Americans of all stripes and sizes are able to serve in the United States military. Now, on the specific policy that you're talking about, with the religious accommodation, it's an updated policy from one which I believe was first written in 2009 -- I have to check on that -- and -- but what's different about this policy is, it declares very specifically that this department will accommodate some religious needs of our service members.

So in -- under that umbrella, it sort of establishes department-wide guidance to the services on religious accommodation. Each of the services have their own. This sort of puts an umbrella cap on that. But it also -- and if you read it, you'll see it also makes it very clear that mission accomplishment comes first. I mean, we want to accommodate as much as we can, but nothing can get in the way of accomplishing the mission. That's got to come first.

And so for an individual that has a request or wants a waiver, it's going to get looked at seriously, case-by-case basis. If it has to go higher in the chain of command, it will. But ultimately, the arbiter is going to be, does it affect our ability to accomplish the mission or not? Does that answer your question? 

Q: Follow? Can I just follow?


Q: Two questions, one on this one, if that includes (OFF-MIC) many, many years that Sikh community, Sikhs in the U.S. military that they will be allowed now to wear their turbans?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: It does -- in fact, I think there were some Sikhs that were talking about this policy. I mean, it does -- it does allow for that. But, again, it has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, evaluated by the unit commander, and the mission can't be -- can't suffer as a result of accommodating some of these religious requirements. So it's -- I mean, yes, it's -- a Sikh can request the wearing of religious attire, but, again, it has to be looked at case-by-case.

Q: So it's not an automatic policy that if they want to wear, they can wear the turban or other religious incarnations that they may have...

REAR ADM. KIRBY: If by automatic, you mean universally and apply all at once, no. As I said, two points -- two points that need to be made clear about this. One, we're saying as a department we will accommodate these preferences and religious requirements. Number two, the mission can't suffer as a result. Okay?

Q: Thank you, John.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Just a second. Mick?

Q: Sorry. Doesn't this open a Pandora's box to administrative and legal challenges? I mean, the list of religions and religious groups is nearly 100. So one can only imagine the number of accommodations that would come out of 100 different groups or request for accommodations. And if they're denied, one can see where there would be a plethora of administrative or even legal challenges.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, it's one of the reasons why we wanted to rewrite the policy and have it in writing, so that you have -- you have an anchored document to go back and look at that makes sense for why you're willing to take a look at these things. I mean, that's why we wanted to codify it in writing this way. I mean...

Q: It's -- those individual decisions are then kicked down to the command level. 

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Not necessarily. If -- and I don't mean to get into this level of detail, but if -- if a service member -- you know, is requesting a waiver for something that doesn't require changes to a uniform, like, for instance, or grooming an appearance standard set by the service, those can be handled at the unit level, and we think they should be handled at the lowest level possible.

If, however, the request requires a waiver of service policy with respect to grooming standards or appearance or the wearing of a uniform, then it's going to go higher in the chain of command, perhaps all the way up to the personnel chief of the service. 

So there's -- there's flexibility in this to work it from both angles. But, again, that's why you want a policy that's clear and it's codified. 

Now, whether it opens us up to legal challenges, then I guess we're just going to have to wait and see. But I don't -- you know, I don't think we believe it's necessarily going to lead to that, not if it's -- not if it's executed properly in a measured way, you know, by good leaders.


Source : US DoD

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