Washington, Jan 23: The US defence department has clarified rules allowing Sikhs, Muslims and other religious-minority service members to wear a turban, scarf or beard as long as the practices do not interfere with military discipline, order or readiness.
However, requests for wearing items of one’s faith by way of religious accommodation will still be decided on a case by case basis, but will generally be denied only if the item poses a safety hazard, interferes with wearing a uniform, a helmet or other military gear or “impairs the accomplishment of the military mission”, Pentagon said.
“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen announced Wednesday.
Immediate commanders may resolve religious accommodation requests that don’t require a waiver of military department or service policies that address wearing of military uniforms and religious apparel, grooming, appearance or body-art standards, he said.
The spokesman said department officials believe the new instruction will enhance commanders’ and supervisors’ ability to promote the climate needed to maintain good order and discipline, and will reduce the instances and perception of discrimination toward those whose religious expressions are less familiar to the command.
The Defense Department “places a high value on the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and the rights of others to their own religious beliefs”, “including the right to hold no beliefs”, the spokesman said.
Sikh American organisations criticised the new rules for not going far enough, but acknowledged they were a “stepping stone” in a long process of prodding the Pentagon to ease restrictions on wearing or showing their “articles of faith”.
The Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund (SALDEF) called the rules an expansion of current policies rather than a meaningful overall change in policy.
“Unfortunately, this continues to make us have to choose between our faith and serving our country,” said SALDEF executive director Jasjit Singh.
“This is an expansion of the waiver policy that is decided person by person. It does not open doors and say you can apply as a Sikh American and serve your country fully,” he said.
Responding to new Pentagon rules that permit limited religious accommodation, Democratic House member Joe Crowley, reiterated his call for an end to the presumptive ban on Sikh articles of faith, including turbans and beards, in the US military.
Crowley, vice chair of the Democratic Caucus and a leader on Sikh American issues in Congress, is currently spearheading a bipartisan letter signed by 20 members of Congress on both sides of the aisle requesting that the US Armed Forces update their appearance regulations to allow Sikh Americans to serve while abiding by their articles of faith.
“Depending on how they are implemented, some aspects of the new Department of Defense rules may be a step in the right direction,” said Crowley.
“But more needs to be done to end the underlying presumptive ban on service by patriotic Sikh Americans. Sikh Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our nation’s military.”
(Arun Kumar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)