WASHINGTON (RNS) New Army regulations will allow soldiers to wear turbans, beards and hijabs under most circumstances, reflecting a change Sikhs have sought for years.
“Based on the successful examples of Soldiers currently serving with these accommodations, I have determined that brigade-level commanders may approve requests for these accommodations,” wrote Secretary of the Army Eric K. Fanning in a Tuesday (Jan. 3) memo.
In March, the Army concluded that permitting beards for medical reasons but banning them for religious reasons is a discriminatory bar to service for Sikhs, who are forbidden by their faith to cut their hair and beards.
With that decision, Capt. Simratpal Singh, a West Point graduate and Bronze Star recipient, was the first to win Army approval to continue on active duty while maintaining his religiously mandated beard and turban.
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Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for Singh with Becket Law, hailed the decision but said more work is needed.
“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception,” said Kaur in a statement, “we are pleased with the progress that this new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation’s largest employer.”
Soldiers will not be granted approval for accommodations if a commander determines “the request is not based on a sincerely held religious belief,” the memo states. If there is a “specific, concrete hazard … that cannot be mitigated by reasonable measures,” the accommodation can be denied.
Previously accommodated soldiers will be given official approval by Jan. 10 that will continue through their careers, barring exceptions.
Fanning said the Army is researching protective masks that can be used in hazardous environments by bearded soldiers. Until then, soldiers with these accommodations will not be permitted to attend military schools that require training on toxic chemical agents or may have to be clean-shaven in certain tactical situations.
The regulations note that hijabs, or headscarves worn by some Muslim women, should be “made of a subdued material in a color that closely resembles the assigned uniform.” A camouflage pattern can be used to match the combat uniform, and a soldier may be required to use flame-resistant material for the hijab.
The new directive includes illustrations detailing how the hijab should surround the face (not covering areas from the eyebrows to the chin) and the length of beards (2 inches maximum). Beards longer than 2 inches “must be rolled and/or tied to achieve the required length,” the rules say.