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 Hagel, asking him to “end the presumptive ban” on all Sikh articles of faith. 

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“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 Garamendi (Calif.), Paul Tonko (N.Y.), Karen Bass (Calif.),  David Price (N.C.) and Hank Johnson (Ga.). 

The 11 Republican signees include Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J.), David Valadao (Calif.), Joe Heck (Nev.), Leonard Lance (N.J.), Ted Poe (Texas), Kerry Bentivolio (Mich.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Frank Wolf (Va.), James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), Pete Olson (Texas) and Charlie Dent (Pa.).