100 House members say military not sufficiently accommodating Sikhs

More than 100 House members say the Pentagon has not done enough to allow Sikhs to serve in the military while observing their religious beliefs.

The lawmakers sent a letter to the Pentagon on Monday calling for further steps to ease a presumptive ban on Sikhs wearing turbans and keeping beards while serving.

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“We believe it is time for our military to make inclusion of practicing Sikh Americans the rule, not the exception,” wrote the 105 lawmakers, led by Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.).

“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,” the lawmakers wrote.

In January, the Pentagon updated its rules on dress and grooming, stating that the armed services will accommodate religious requests for individual service members, unless the request would interfere with military readiness, a mission or unit cohesion.

But Sikh advocates say the changes do not go far enough, as the rules still require individuals seeking religious exemptions to go through the process of obtaining a waiver.

Crowley sent a letter to the Pentagon in January with more than 20 lawmakers calling for changes to the policy, and now more than 100 House members have signed on.

The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, has pushed for the military to ease the rules so Sikhs can more easily serve.

“It’s time for the Pentagon to realize that Sikh Americans are here to stay and that policies of exclusion are inevitably going to fail,” Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy for the group, said in a statement Monday.

At a January House hearing on religious accommodations in the military, Virginia Penrod, deputy assistant secretary for military personnel policy, said that the services need to have a compelling reason not to accept a waiver for religious reasons.

“What the changes do, it tries to balance the need, or provides the service the ability to balance the needs of the service member with the needs against mission accomplishment,” Penrod said.