Sikhs praise Army's new religious accommodation rules

Sikhs praise Army's new religious accommodation rules
© Sikh Coalition

Sikh soldiers and their advocates are praising an updated Army policy that will make it easier to seek a religious accommodation for beards and turbans worn by Sikhs, as well as articles of faith for any other religion.

“An Army with Sikhs is an even stronger Army,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket Law, said in a statement Wednesday. “Sikhs have a history of heroic service in militaries around the world—including in the U.S. until about thirty years ago. Now their strength will be added back to the Army without the threat of forced shaves and haircuts.”

Devout followers of Sikhism, a South Asian religion, wear turbans and have unshorn hair.

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Sikh soldiers have been fighting for years to ease the process of gaining religious accommodations, including three soldiers who sued last year to get an answer to their requests before they started basic training and a decorated captain who sued to make his temporary accommodation permanent.

Under a 2014 rule change, the armed services accommodated religious requests for individual service members unless the request would interfere with military readiness, a mission or unit cohesion. But critics said the process to be granted religious exemptions was onerous and needed to be changed.

The new rules, detailed in an Army memo dated Tuesday and released Wednesday by the Sikh groups, allow for religious accommodations to be approved at the brigade level, instead of the secretary level.

The decision to allow brigade-level commanders to grant exemption was made “based on the successful examples of Soldiers currently serving with these accommodations,” according to the memo from Army Secretary Eric Fanning.

The new rules also ensure the accommodation is enduring.

“The accommodation will continue throughout the Soldier's career and may not be permanently revoked or modified unless authorized by me or my designee,” the memo says.

The new rules apply to all religious accommodation requests, with the memo highlighting that the most common requests are for hijabs, beards, turbans, under-turbans/patkas and uncut hair.

Those with religious exemptions for beards will be barred from military schools with toxic chemical agent training and from assignments needing compliance with biological, chemical or nuclear safety requirements until the Army does further research on masks that both fit beards and meet safety requirements, according to the memo.

Additionally, those with beards may be asked to shave by a commander if the unit is in or about to be in a situation where they will be exposed to a toxic agent and need a mask.

Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus who has worked on the issue of Sikhs in the Army, hailed the changes.

“This is major progress, not just for the Sikh American community but for our nation’s military," Crowley said in a statement. "Sikh Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our country on equal footing. Today’s announcement will help do just that. We are a stronger nation, with a stronger military, because of our respect for religious and personal freedom." 

The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, said the new rules represent progress.

“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception, we are pleased with the progress that this new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation’s largest employer,” Harsimran Kaur, the coalition’s legal director, said in a statement.

Amandeep Sidhu, co-counsel at McDermott Will and Emery LLP, said he’s pleased with the new rules.

“The Sikh articles of faith have always been consistent with the best of American values, and we’re pleased that the burden no longer rests with Sikh soldiers to prove this through a lengthy administrative process," Sidhu said in a statement.

The rule is being changed in the waning days of the Obama administration, and the action could be unilaterally undone by President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand backs federal classification of third gender: report Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job MORE. It's unclear whether Trump's choice for Army secretary, Vincent Viola, would change the new policy.

Updated at 10:39 p.m.