WASHINGTON — A group of legislators is asking the Pentagon for a policy change to ensure Sikh troops are never forced to violate their religion by shaving their beards, cutting their hair or getting rid of their turbans.
The Pentagon in January released a new policy that says servicemembers can receive waivers to follow their religions’ grooming standards based on “sincerely held beliefs” so long as the exceptions don’t harm readiness or unit cohesion.
But Sikh groups and the handful of Sikh members of the armed forces say that doesn’t go far enough. The policy requiring waivers from top service branch officials to wear the religion’s mandatory beards and turbans means recruits as well as troops transferring to new assignments might suddenly become liable to regular grooming standards.
A bipartisan group of 105 House members echoed those concerns in a letter sent Monday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that called for an end to the “presumptive ban” on Sikhs in the military.
“(We) believe it is time for our military to make inclusion of practicing Sikh Americans the rule, not the exception,” said the letter from Representatives Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., and Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Tuesday that the Pentagon was still waiting on the letter. But, he said, the Defense Department wants to allow as much religious freedom to members as possible.
“It’s our policy to accommodate religious requests for service unless they have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment and unit cohesion,” he said.
The legislators said devout beard- and turban-wearing Sikhs have served in the U.S military since World War I, and are serving freely in the Canadian, Indian and British armed forces.
Traditional Sikh grooming fell afoul of U.S. military regulations when grooming standards were tightened in the 1980s.
Three Sikh soldiers currently have grooming waivers, and have demonstrated the ability to meet operational requirements, including achieving seals with gas masks, the letter said.
“Throughout the world, and now in the U.S. Army, Sikh soldiers are clearly able to maintain their religious commitments while serving capably and honorably,” legislators wrote.
Outside a packed House hearing on the matter in January, Army Maj. Kamal S. Kalsi, a military doctor, said Sikhs want to serve while staying true to their faith.
“I’m not a lobbyist, I’m just a soldier,” he told Stars and Stripes. “I’m proof of concept that a Sikh can wear a helmet, can wear a gas mask and get a seal … that we can do everything that is needed by any soldier, with our articles of faith intact.”