Officers of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) recently ordered two Muslim service members to remove religious headwear. A female major will face a disciplinary hearing for refusing to remove her headscarf. Another major, Simo Mbete, reported he was fined and spent three months in the military barracks for refusing to take off his skull cap last October. Both report long-standing service in the SANDF wearing religious garb with no issue before local commands ordered removal.
In the United States, protections for service members wearing religious apparel stem from Congress, not the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. After the Supreme Court in Goldman v. Weinberger found an orthodox Jew and ordained rabbi must obey orders to remove his yarmulke, Congress passed 10 U.S.C. § 774, which provides, generally, military members are permitted to wear religious apparel. This general rule is subject to service Secretary regulations ensuring the items are neat and conservative and do not interfere with the performance of military duties.
What these limitations mean in practice is still being ironed out. In 2017, in response to a lawsuit, the Army updated its regulations allowing Sikh and Muslim Soldiers to wear head coverings, and for Sikhs to maintain their beard. Soldiers must submit requests for religious accommodations to their Bridge Commander. If approval is denied, the request is routed to the Army Secretary for a final decision. The Air Force also recently allowed a Sikh airman to wear a turban and beard, and a Muslim judge advocate to wear the hijab.
While current protections may prove ephemeral depending on a service Secretary’s whims, Congressional action, to include 10 U.S.C. § 774 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, provide a baseline of protections on behalf of individuals. Here’s hoping the SANDF finds a way to adopt more consistent accommodations that prevent local commanders from selectively interfering with an individual’s religious practices.