By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army has denied requests by two soldiers to dress and groom themselves according to their religious beliefs under a revised Pentagon policy, a spokesman said on Monday.
The policy approved on January 22 was mainly expected to affect Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and other groups that wear beards, long hair or articles of clothing such as turbans and yarmulkes. It also could affect Wiccans and others who obtain tattoos for religious reasons.
Under the guidelines, the military service branches were encouraged to allow people to dress according to religious custom so long as it did not interfere with good order and discipline within their units.
But the policy has been criticized by lawmakers and members of the affected religious groups, who say the Defense Department is still setting a hurdle essentially prohibiting some people from joining the service.
Lieutenant Colonel Justin Platt, an Army spokesman, said only two soldiers had requested a waiver to the uniform policy for religious purposes since the new policy went into effect. Both were denied.
He was unable to identify the religious group of the two soldiers. The exact timing of the decisions was not clear.
Platt noted that under the policy, local commanders can approve accommodations for worship practices and dietary requirements, but requests that would require a waiver of uniform policy had to be authorized by a senior officer.
Between 2012 and 2014, the officer in charge of the process has approved six exceptions to the Army uniform policy and rejected five.
Those approved included three Sikhs who had previously been granted waivers but would have had needed a new one if they were deployed to a new position, Platt said. The new waivers approved in 2013 would be valid for their full career, he said.
The Army also has granted waivers to the uniform policy for a Jewish chaplain and for two Muslim soldiers, Platt said.
He said the five whose requests were turned down included a future Sikh soldier, an enlisted Sikh soldier, a Muslim female officer and a military prisoner. The prisoner is former Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, who was sentenced to death for the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage that killed 13 people.
More than 100 lawmakers signed a letter last month urging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to take further steps to ease the military's uniform policy to allow Sikhs to wear beards, long hair and turbans as they do in other countries.
Officials from the Sikh Coalition said Sikhs who currently join the military run the risk of showing up at basic training and being forced to cut their hair or shave their beards in violation of their religious beliefs.
(Editing by Grant McCool)