Sikh-American Soldiers Granted Accommodations to Serve with Turbans and Beards

The U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Army adjusts strict appearance rules to accommodate Sikh soldiers fighting for their country.

There are five articles of faith which all baptized Sikhs are obliged to wear. Uncut hair is one of them. It was not mandatory for the Sikhs serving in the United States military to cut their hair or beard until 1981. (Sikhs have been serving in the U.S. military from the time of World War 1). Then, in 1981, the U.S. military implemented its no-beards policy. It put the Sikh soldiers in a dilemma.

However, rules were rules, and they had to abide by it. They did, they still do. The only way a Sikh soldier can grow a beard now in the U.S. military is by getting an exception via a process that is available for the service members. According to the legal director of the Sikh Coalition, Harsimran Kaur, exceptions are granted on a case-by-case basis.

In 2006, Simratpal Singh joined the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. To abide by the no-beards rule, he had to shave his beard. It was the first time that he ever had to shave in his entire life. A highly religious man, he dreaded waking up each morning, looking in the mirror, and shaving.

According to Singh, it shattered his self-esteem. Then, last year, Simratpal Singh filed a federal lawsuit seeking the Pentagon to accommodate bearded people for religious reasons. Last month, he was granted permission by the Army to practice his faith freely by not cutting/shaving his beard or hair. Singh is the first active-duty Sikh soldier to be given a long-term appearance exemption.

Following suit, three Sikh enlistees filed a separate lawsuit as well. Last Friday, the Army granted them similar exceptions. Kanwar Singh, Harpal Singh, and Arjan Singh Ghotra will be able to wear their beards and turbans when they report for training next month.

It was Debra S. Wada, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, who granted the exemptions to the four Sikhs. New mandate states the soldiers wear their beards and hair in a neat and conservative manner. They should always portray a well-groomed appearance.

Harsimran Kaur, who represented the four Sikhs in a statement, noted that the exemptions will be revisited by the Army in about a year, at which time, the exemptions could be potentially rescinded. Kaur commended the U.S. Army for letting the four Sikhs serve with their religious beards and turbans. However, everybody, including the Federal court and Department of Defense, knows that engaging case-by-case, accommodation processes while also enforcing a discriminatory ban is indefensible and illegal.

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