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US military eases rules to allow beards, turbans and other religious attire

January 24, 2014 | By

Washington, DC (January 24, 2014): New US military guidelines have opened the way for service members to wear religious clothing such as turbans while on duty, the Department of Defense has announced.

The guidelines, published on January 22, also allow for beard, body art and other expressions of religious belief. It is not a blanket permission, however; requests for dispensation from stated uniform policy are to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

The military counts thousands of Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Wiccans and members of other religious groups among its ranks. The groups have protested against the exclusion of religious apparel, saying it forces them to choose between their religious beliefs and a desire to serve.

Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi was granted a religious accommodation by the US army in 2009

Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi was granted a religious accommodation by the US army in 2009 [File Photo]

The US military counts nearly 3,700 Muslims and 1,500 Wiccans among its ranks, according to statistics reported by NBC News, but it remains unclear how many will apply for dispensations.

To be approved, changes in apparel or presentation must not impair the operation of weapons, pose a health or safety hazard or interfere with other military equipment such as helmets, flak jackets or wetsuits, according to the guidelines.

“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,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt Cmdr Nathan J Christensen.

The Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund said the rules did not go far enough.

“This is an expansion of the waiver policy that is decided person by person,” its director, Jasjit Singh, told the Washington Post. “It does not open doors and say you can apply as a Sikh American and serve your country fully.”

The Sikh Coalition collects the stories of Sikhs who have won the right to wear turbans and beards on duty. The first was Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a doctor and Afghanistan combat veteran who was granted a religious accommodation by the US army in October 2009.

Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the Sikh Coalition described the new Pentagon measure as “a step forward” but said it still represented uncertainty for Sikh Americans, whose religion requires men to wear turbans, beards and long hair.

“What is the incentive to enlist when there’s such little clarity if you’ll be accommodated,” he asked.

“It’s absolutely progress that the military is stating a commitment to protecting religious liberty… However, it’s clear that we have a long way to go.”

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agreed, saying he welcomed any move to broader religious accommodation for American soldiers.

“We’ve dealt with this issue on a number of occasions, whether it was with beards or with head scarfs or even in support of the Sikh community on the issue of turbans and skullcaps for the Jewish military personnel.”

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