Military Officials Tell Congress Faith Can be Expressed Unless It's in a 'Suppressing Sort of Way'

"When it is in conflict with those around, that is denouncing them, or intruding them, there's a sensitivity there that we have to try to help that individual understand through training, and through other means like that. But they're never told they cannot share their own personal faith of any sort," Bailey continued, adding faith can't be expressed in a "suppressing sort of way."

He said if a commander has a Bible or a Quran on his desk, it's the chaplain's role "to advise the commander of the impact that would have, or possibly any repercussions of that."

"The commander would make a wise decision at that point, understanding his or her role as a leader of all faiths, in a regard of religious accommodation, or a lack of faith, whatever it may be, the choices of a service member they lead," Bailey said.

Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.) said the stories lawmakers hear from service members, usually linked to the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, show that they're not isolated incidents.

"April of 2013, the Pennsylvania Army Reserve Unit, Evangelical Christians are examples of religious extremists. Catholics are equated to the Ku Klux Klan, al Qaeda, and Hamas," Nunnelee said. "Fall of 2013, Fort Hood, same institute, Christians are a threat to the nation. Any soldier that donates to these groups will be subject to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice."

"October 2013, similar statements at Camp Shelby. December of 2013, soldiers were told, 'Don't use the word Christmas. Might be offensive.'"

Penrod said she didn't have the specifics on the cases, but would look them up.

Multiple groups entered statements into the record for the hearing, ranging from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union to the Family Research Council.

About 10 Sikhs showed up at the hearing and more waited in the overflow crowd outside the door, as the hearing came on the heels of new Defense Department guidance on beards and religious headgear.

One was Army Major Kamal Singh Kalsi, a Bronze Star recipient who went through a lengthy process that ultimately required the help of his congressman to get a waiver that allowed him to keep his religious beard and turban. Two other Sikhs have also received waivers allowing them to serve.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said last week that religious accommodation "has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, evaluated by the unit commander, and the mission can't suffer as a result of accommodating some of these religious requirements."

"A Sikh can request the wearing of religious attire, but, again, it has to be looked at case-by-case," Kirby continued. "…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."

"If a service member 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… Now, whether it opens us up to legal challenges, then I guess we're just going to have to wait and see."

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) was concerned about Sikhs needing a new waiver every time their assignment changes.

Heck said even the new guidance seemed to amount to "a presumptive ban on members of the Sikh religion from joining -- from having to give up their articles of faith, from having to seek an accommodation every time they have a change of assignment, and whether or not there's still some question as if they are allowed to assess into the service, whether or not they have to stop wearing their headgear or shave while going through boot camp until an accommodation is granted."

"When you look at military readiness, each unit of assignment has a different responsibility," Penrod responded. "The service has to make that determination. If, now, this new position or new job that the individual would be performing impacts safety, health, the unit, they may deny the accommodation."