Pentagon OKs religious beards, attire

Some Sikhs, once barred from military for insisting on wearing turbans and beards, say policy does not go far enough

There are only three religiously observant Sikh men serving in the U.S. military.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The U.S. military approved a new policy that loosens regulations on religious symbols worn by service members, the Pentagon announced Wednesday — a partial victory for some Sikhs, who have pushed for the move after being barred from serving in the armed forces for insisting on wearing turbans and beards in accordance with their faith.

Pentagon spokesman Nathan Christensen said the new policy, which also allows service members to request prayer time or engage in other religious activities, should not interfere with a soldier’s ability to perform, and “should balance the need of the service member against the need to accomplish the military mission.”

The looser regulations will also affect Jews, Muslims and Wiccans, who were similarly barred from serving for insisting on wearing tattoos, beards or other religious symbols.

But Sikh activists say the new rules do not go far enough.

Under the new policy, military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members, Christensen said, unless they are deemed to have an adverse effect on performance.

Exactly how assessments would be made is ripe for interpretation.  

The Pentagon said evaluation factors include monitoring whether a religious item would impair the “safe and effective” operation of weapons, the accomplishment of a military mission, and whether it poses a risk to wearing protective measures such as helmets and masks. In addition, requests to accommodate religious practices will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, the statement added.

Rajdeep Singh, policy director at national advocacy group The Sikh Coalition, told Al Jazeera the ad-hoc decisions deprive Sikh recruits from an unconditional accommodation, and that the new guidelines do not allow for wearing religious symbols while an application is pending.

“Sikhs do not have the flexibility assumed by the revised policy that they can simply shave their beards and remove their turbans while they await approval or denial of their request for a religious accommodation,” he said. “To do so would be an unequivocal violation of their religious obligations.”

Thursday, a day after the Pentagon issued the new guidelines, Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., reiterated his call for an end to the ban on Sikh articles of faith in the U.S. military, urging members of Congress to sign an ongoing petition requesting that the Pentagon update its appearance regulations.

In a similar move, two U.S. senators asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in July last year to remove the policy that they said was barring religious Sikh Americans from enlisting in the military.

“Sikh Americans fought bravely in defense of our nation in World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said. “There’s no reason their children or grandchildren should have to abandon their religious principles in order to serve their country today.”

The Department of Defense, for its part, said it believes the new policy will reduce discrimination “toward those whose religious expressions are less familiar to the command,” but also underscored “the right to hold no beliefs."

‘Not completely there’

Wednesday’s policy change comes in response to years of advocacy efforts led by Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a Sikh service member who demanded the right to serve in the U.S. military and also wear religious headdress.

In 2009, Kalsi received a personal exception from the Army after compiling 15,000 petition signatures and garnering the support of more than 50 members of Congress to request permission to maintain unshorn hair and wear a turban, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported.

Only two other Sikh men have joined Kalsi in serving in the U.S. military, the commission said — an exceptionally low number that Kalsi previously stated could be increased if the Pentagon amended its policies on religious symbols.

We are very grateful that the Army and the Pentagon are looking into this,” Anisha Singh, staff attorney and policy advocate at United Sikhs, a national advocacy organization, told Al Jazeera. “However, we are not completely there,” she added, citing vague language and arbitrary standards.

“A Sikh gentleman cannot feel like he will be granted a position because he still is subject to scrutiny,” she said. “All this gives a little bit of hope, but it doesn’t take us all the way there. There is no clear-cut accommodation here.”

Sikhs are regularly subjected to discrimination.

More than 70 percent of turban wearers in the U.S. are misidentified as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto, according to a 2013 study, and nearly half of all Americans believe that the Sikh faith is a sect of Islam. Many also associate the turban with Osama bin Laden.

In a high-profile attack in September of last year, Columbia University professor and public interfaith advocate Prabhjot Singh was assaulted in New York City by a group of young men who broke his jaw and kicked his body and face. They reportedly yelled “get Osama” and “terrorist” as they descended upon him.

The Pentagon’s decision counters international trends to curb displays of religious attire in public service. Politicians in Quebec proposed to issue a ban on religious symbols for state employees in August of last year. And in France, politicians are amplifying their rhetoric on removing religion from the public sphere ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary elections.

With The Associated Press

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