Washington DC, 24 February 2017. Eight Sikh Army recruits have received waivers this year allowing them to maintain their religiously mandated beards and turbans in uniform, nearly doubling the number of observant Sikhs in the Army despite a decades-old policy barring visual symbols of faith.
The most recent religious appearance accommodations were granted in January and February, according to records reviewed by Stars and Stripes, just weeks after then-Army Secretary Eric Fanning simplified the process observant Sikhs and Muslims must follow to receive a waiver.
This could signal a relaxing of the Pentagon’s ban instituted in 1981 on outward symbols of faith in uniform, which is being reviewed by the Defense Department and each of the military services, three defense officials said.
The Army has approved at least 17 exemptions for Sikh soldiers to maintain their unshorn beards and turban-covered hair since 2009, when it granted the first such request to Kamal Kalsi, a medical doctor who is now a lieutenant colonel.
Kalsi, who has partnered with the Sikh Coalition and other groups to advocate for Sikhs, said military service is a natural fit for many religious Sikhs.
For Kalsi, a native of India who grew up in New Jersey, the military is also a family tradition. His father and grandfather served in the Indian air force and his great-grandfather served in the Royal British Army.
“Military service and service in general is such a big part of the Sikh community,” Kalsi said in a recent interview. “In taking my oath as an officer in the Army, the things that I swore an oath to are the same things that I was taught as a Sikh growing up, honesty, integrity, courage.
These things are all part and parcel of being a Sikh and of being a good soldier in the USA Army”.
For many service members, the process to receive a policy exemption to wear a simple symbol of their faith, such as a yarmulke for Jewish service members, can be approved by their direct commanding officers, but for observant Sikhs, and for some devout Muslims who must wear beards or hijabs, the longstanding Pentagon policy requires a formal waiver to the military appearance standards.
Until recently, those exemptions were rarely granted.
That appears to have changed, at least in the Army.
The eight accommodations approved by the Army this year follow six exemptions that the service granted to recruits in 2016, according to the non-profit Sikh Coalition.
Army Lt. Colonel Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the service, said she could not confirm the number of soldiers or recruits who have received a religious appearance exemption because the process has been “decentralized” and records are maintained at various installations.
Before last year, only three Sikh soldiers had been granted similar accommodations since 1981, according to the coalition. Sikh Coalition spokespersons said they were unaware of any observant Sikhs serving in the other military branches.
Spokespersons for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps said they were not aware of any Sikhs serving in those branches with an accommodation to wear an unshorn beard and turban in uniform.
The policy change
On 4 January just days before he left office with the President Barack Obama administration, Fanning issued a memorandum that mandated brigade commanders grant accommodations to soldiers or recruits seeking to wear religiously required beards or headwear in uniform with only a few exceptions.
Previously, such decisions were made by the secretary. They remain decisions relegated to senior officials in the other military branches.
Fanning’s order instructed commanders to deny requested religious exemptions only if they are “not based on a sincerely held religious belief” or they would cause “a specific, concrete hazard … that cannot be mitigated by reasonable measures.”
The Sikh Coalition, which brought lawsuits last year against the Army backing four Sikhs in their pursuits of religious accommodations, welcomed Fanning’s decision. But the group has not finished its fight, said Harsimran Kaur, the coalition’s legal director.
Ultimately, she said, the coalition wants to see an end to “all religious discrimination” and seeks a Pentagon-wide policy change to allow persons of any religion to maintain their visual articles of faith in uniform without requiring an accommodation.
“The USA is the strongest democracy in the world, and it has the strongest military in the world,” Kaur said. “For the United States to take in people from different religions and different backgrounds that’s only going to strengthen that democracy and that military.”
The Pentagon has long pointed to two primary reasons for retaining its ban on visible religious articles, the need for uniform appearance to maintain good order and discipline and the potential impact such articles could have on servicemembers’ safety equipment.
Beards, especially, Pentagon officials have said, can interfere with the effectiveness of protective masks.
Kalsi rejects both arguments. He and other bearded Sikhs have been able to properly seal Army-issued protective masks to their face and pass standard gas chamber testing, he said.
Furthermore, Kalsi said he has never had issues with other servicemembers because of his visible tenets of faith.
“They have always sort of found it fascinating, or found it really cool,” he said. “The military always argues that the turban and beard may affect espirit de corps or unit cohesion. My experience and the experience of other Sikh soldiers who have deployed has always been the same – that we’ve never had any problems getting along with our units.”