US Army allows turbans, beards, hijabs for servicemen

RSTV Bureau
President Barack Obama meets with Combatant Commanders and Joint Chiefs of Staff, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.

President Barack Obama meets with Combatant Commanders and Joint Chiefs of Staff, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.

In a significant move to enable all religious minorities in America including the Sikhs to freely serve without exception, the US Army has issued new regulations on religious liberty to accommodate people who wear beards, turbans or hijabs.

The new set of rules, issued by Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, allows religious accommodations to be approved at the brigade-level. Previously it was at the level of Secretary.

Once that approval occurs, the change will ensure that the religious accommodation is enduring and applies to most positions within the US Army.

The new regulations came about largely in response to litigation and advocacy from Sikh servicemen who wear beards and turbans for religious reasons, and who wanted to be able to keep them while actively serving.

The regulations provide that — except in rare circumstances — sincere followers of the Sikh faith may no longer be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards to serve their country.

“This is a major progress, not just for the Sikh-American community but for our nation’s military. Sikh-Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our country on equal footing. Today’s announcement will help do just that,” Congressman Joe Crowley said welcoming the directive issued by the US Army Secretary.

“We are a stronger nation, with a stronger military because of our respect for religious and personal freedom,” he said.

The move has been welcomed by Sikh-Americans and US lawmakers who have been on the forefront of a national campaign in this regard for the past several years.

Before the January 3 changes announced by the US Army, Sikh-Americans and others had to be granted a limited accommodation or permission to serve in the army while maintaining their articles of faith.

Such accommodations were neither permanent nor guaranteed, and had to be renewed after virtually every assignment.

Service members had also been required to remove their articles of faith while their accommodation request is pending, once again subjecting them to the difficult position of choosing between their faith and job.

Sikh-American Coalition, which has been on the forefront of such a campaign, welcomed the move, but said that this is still short of what they have been asking for.

“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception, we are pleased with the progress that this new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation’s largest employer,” said the coalition’s legal director Harsimran Kaur.

The new provisions updates rules governing religious liberty that significantly improve the standards for Sikhs and other religious minorities who seek to serve their country with their religious articles of faith intact, she said.

“An Army with Sikhs is an even stronger Army,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket Law, which represents several Sikh soldiers.

“Sikhs have a history of heroic service in militaries around the world—including in the US until about thirty years ago. Now their strength will be added back to the Army without the threat of forced shaves and haircuts.”

West Point graduate and Bronze Star Medal recipient Captain Simratpal Singh, along with other Sikh soldiers, faced the prospect of being forced to compromise his faith despite the fact that the military already accommodates nearly 100,000 soldiers with beards for medical or other reasons.

The soldiers initially received temporary accommodations in the spring of 2016, allowing them to report to their assignments with beard and turban intact, but the Army continued to withhold assurances that they could finish their military careers.

The new policy now makes that promise, with the sole restriction that soldiers may be asked to shave in the case of active tactical situations involving specific and concrete threat of exposure to toxic agents, the law firm said in a statement.

Since 1981, a prohibitive ban was placed on Sikh American soldiers that forced them to make the false choice between service to faith and country. Last year, after filing lawsuits on behalf of four Sikh American soldiers, including the decorated Captain Simratpal Singh, the US Army has increased the number of individual long-term religious accommodations to nine.

The move comes just days after the New York Police Department (NYPD) said it will allow its Sikh officers to wear turbans and maintain beards, relaxing its uniform policy, another significant move aimed at inclusiveness and in a nod to the growing contribution made by the members of the community in the city’s fabric.

Under the revised policy, officers from the Sikh faith serving in the NYPD will be allowed to have beards that extend up to one-half inch from the face. The officers may also wear blue turbans — with a hat shield it affixed to it — in place of the traditional police cap.