Sikhs: End Pentagon's turban ban

The Pentagon’s recent decision to relax rules allowing religious wear does not go far enough, say some Sikh Americans who are going to Congress for help. 

More than 20 lawmakers have now signed onto a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelIntel chief: Federal debt poses 'dire threat' to national security Hagel: Trump is 'an embarrassment' Tax cut complete, hawks push for military increase MORE, asking him to “end the presumptive ban” on all Sikh articles of faith. 

“Sikh Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our nation’s military,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who is leading the effort, in a statement Thursday. 

The new Pentagon guidance, issued Wednesday, allows commanders to accommodate individual’s expressions of “sincerely held beliefs” that would include wearing religious clothing, beards, tattoos and piercings. 

Such articles of faith would be allowable as long as they did not interfere with military readiness, a mission, unit cohesion, or good order and discipline, according to the guidance.

The decision will affect Sikhs, Muslims and Jews, and other groups whose religion might require religious clothing or beards. 

Each accommodation would be decided on a case-by-case basis by a service member’s immediate commander and, if necessary, referred back to the service for a possible waiver.

Some Sikh groups say this policy does not go far enough, and articles of faith should always be allowed as long as individuals maintain a neat and conservative appearance, and can successfully perform their military duties.

“To be clear, Sikh Americans must still go through a lengthy and uncertain administrative process before being approved or denied the opportunity to serve their country with their religiously mandated turbans and beards,” said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition.

Defense officials say the new guidance establishes departmentwide policy, versus ad hoc decisions made by each service. 

“Each of the services have their own [policy]; this sort of puts an umbrella cap on that,” said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman. “But it also — and if you read it, you'll see it also makes it very clear that mission accomplishment comes first.” 

If a change does not require a change to a uniform, or grooming and appearance standards set by a service, they can be handled by a unit commander, Kirby said. 

But if the change affects those standards, those decisions will go up the change of command, possibly to the personnel chief of the service, he said. 

The Pentagon’s decision came after three Sikh American service members, including a captain and a major who served in Afghanistan, sought accommodations to wear turbans and beards.

Defense officials pushed back against critics who said the accommodation was an example of changing military standards for political correctness. 

“It's not social engineering in the military,” said Kirby. “The secretary believes that the opportunity to serve your country in uniform should be as open to as many Americans as possible, obviously within certain standards, of course.” 

“And he's committed, as was Secretary Panetta before him, to removing as many barriers to that service as possible and to make the military service a vocation that one wants to pursue and can pursue for a career,” Kirby said. 

Eight other Democrats have signed the letter, including Reps. Judy Chu (Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Jim Costa (Calif.), John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiDem: Trump presidency 'very serious security threat' for US Trump infrastructure plan gets cold reception House GOP leaders scramble for budget votes MORE (Calif.), Paul Tonko (N.Y.), Karen BassKaren Ruth BassDem rep on Trump tweet: ‘An embarrassment on the international stage’ Sunday Shows preview: Debate over memo takes spotlight in Washington Dem rips GOP lawmaker for calling for FBI 'purge': Maybe he needs a history lesson MORE (Calif.),  David Price (N.C.) and Hank Johnson (Ga.). 

The 11 Republican signees include Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenDeVos battles lawmakers in contentious hearing Week ahead in defense: Spending bill, Yemen vote top agenda Top appropriations Dem: Omnibus talks 'locked down' MORE (N.J.), David Valadao (Calif.), Joe Heck (Nev.), Leonard Lance (N.J.), Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeWater has experienced a decade of bipartisan success Way to go, Ted Poe Congress thinks big to tackle a defining crisis of our times MORE (Texas), Kerry BentivolioKerry BentivolioIndiana Republican: Leaders duped me Reindeer farmer saves 'cromnibus' with yes vote High drama as .1T spending package advances by one vote MORE (Mich.), Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse Dem moves to force vote on bill protecting Mueller Collins: 'Extremely disappointing' ObamaCare fix left out of spending deal House poised to vote on .3T spending bill MORE (Wis.), Frank WolfFrank Rudolph WolfHouse votes to mandate sexual harassment training for members and staff Trump, global religious freedom needs US ambassador to lead Bottom Line MORE (Va.), James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), Pete Olson (Texas) and Charlie Dent (Pa.).